While preparing this aria for a concert next month, I was reflecting on the idea of freedom. We all, in some way or another, long for freedom—from a person, situation, or even our own thoughts. In “Stridono lassù,” Nedda is desperate to escape her oppressive situation and fly like the birds. To her, birds represent hope. With so many melancholic arias in my repertoire, it’s a breath of fresh air to sing something hopeful (albeit temporarily, since my character dies at the end anyway!). Enjoy this rendition by the divine Montserrat Caballé; I can’t imagine it sung better.
As a young American soprano studying opera in the early 2000s, Renée Fleming was my hero. Who am I kidding, she still is. She has the most beautiful tone quality, consummate technique, and an air of ease that makes the whole thing seem effortless. Of course now, as a working singer, I know that making it look effortless takes years of hard work and dedication. My favorite Renée recording is Strauss’s Vier Letzte Lieder with Eschenbach from the 90’s, and my favorite song from that cycle is “Beim Schlafengehen.” I listened to that recording weekly for three or four years, especially when I felt down about the business or about my progression as an artist. It always brought me back to center, a gentle reminder of why I sing: for the pure joy of self-expression and (hopefully) transporting others in the process. Since I couldn’t find that recording on YouTube, here’s a live version from the Proms in 2001.
I sang very briefly with a jazz quartet in college, and while I love jazz and enjoy the challenge of improvisation, I’ve always been terrified of scat. When our group decided to jam on “All of Me,” I relied my opera singer skill of memorization to recall the amazing rendition by Sarah Vaughan. I’m embarrassed to say that this was the best jam we ever had, not because I was suddenly brilliant at improv, but because I had memorized and regurgitated Sarah Vaughan’s verbatim! Nonetheless, it’s still one of my all-time favorite songs—and boy can that woman scat!
“Le spectre de la rose” from Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été (Summer Nights) is both delicate and grand, one of those songs that really sticks with you. The ghost of a rose, plucked and worn by a woman at a ball, appears at her bedside. The rose fills her room with its intoxicating scent, whispering words of love and reassurance. He tells her not to be afraid, and like a prince from a fairytale, he happily accepts his death for just one evening by her side: “My destiny was worthy of envy, and for such a beautiful fate, many would have given their lives.” Somehow, Berlioz manages to convey this passion without schmaltz, but with a dreaminess that could soften the most guarded of stoics.
Steve brought “Soneto a Córdoba” to me as a possibility for our Lorca program (since de Falla was one of Lorca’s mentors), and despite never having been, I was instantly transported to southern Spain. This song is an ode to Córdoba, a town in Andalusia where the poet Luis de Góngora lived and died. Since de Falla also lived in Andalusia for many years, both men were clearly moved by the richness of the area, with its vast mountains, rivers, and evocative landscape. Thanks to Steve (and de Falla), Andalusia is now on my bucket list of travel destinations!
Federico Lorca struggled with his sexuality for much of his short life. No wonder. It was the inevitable fate of a passionate, uninhibited, demonstrative gay man living in a repressive, homophobic culture. While he had deep emotional attachments to a number of women, his heart was susceptible only to other men. One of his earliest affairs was with Salvador Dalí, whom he met when he was in his early 20s. It is hard to be sure how far their romance went, but it seems to have been consummated at a certain point. Afterwards Dalí distanced himself from Lorca and formed a bond with their mutual friend Luis Buñuel, the film director. Like many Spanish men, Buñuel prized machismo and looked down on gayness. Lorca could never shake the suspicion that the title Buñuel and Dali’s iconic film, “An Andalusian Dog,” was intended as a slur on him. Lorca was proud of his Andalusian roots, but northern Spaniards liked to feel superior to those from the southern coast.
Lorca flaunted his Andalusian background, but he was more sanguine about being openly gay. He developed crushes on man after man and formed deep emotional attachments, only to be rebuffed when his friend caught on to Lorca’s sexual attraction. But when the poet turned 30, he made a trip to Cuba. There he found a far more relaxed and accepting culture where gay sex was easy to come by. By then he had also spent some time in New York City where he thrilled to the poems of Walt Whitman—in translation, no doubt, since he spoke almost no English. When he returned to Spain, he displayed a new kind of liberation and a more open sense of his own desires. He still had to be careful. But he was able to let a trusted friend give him the nickname “Fedaricón,” a portmanteau of “Federico” and “maricón,” the Spanish word for “faggot.” Offered as a gentle joke, Lorca took it as a celebration of his newly accepted sexuality.
I see so much of Lorca’s poetry as an expression of his frustrations and joys at being gay. It’s in his plays too: his sadness at knowing he would never be a father is at the root of Yerma, whose leading character is a barren woman. But there is only one poem in which he directly addresses the idea of homosexuality, “Canción del mariquita”—“Song of the sissy.” He paints the picture of an effeminate man wearing a silk dressing gown, piling up his curls and adorning himself with a flower. The neighbors smirk, but he is unashamed. The poem has many layers of meaning—everything in Lorca is a complex web of things revealed and things hidden. The mariquita is the man Lorca feared he might be, or the man he might become. But he is also the proud, unafraid gay man Lorca wanted to be. The neighbors know him for what he is, yet they smile. They do not laugh. And the “mariquitas” of Andalusia sing their truth from the rooftops.
I do not know why the Moroccan-French-Spanish composer Maurice Ohana chose this poem for his “Huit chansons espagnoles.” But it cannot have been an accident. He changed the title to conform to his setting—“Tango del mariquita”—and lifted this very special poem into the spotlight. For that, I am in his debt.
Françoise Atlan; Nathalie Négro
The sissy combs his hair
In his silken dressing gown.
The neighbors smile
In their rear windows.
The sissy arranged
The curls on his head.
Through the patios shout,
Parrots, deliverymen, and planets.
The sissy adorns himself
With a jasmine flower, shameless.
The afternoon turns strange
With combs and climbing plants.
The scandal was shivering
Striped like a zebra.
The southern sissies,
They sing on the rooftop terraces!
In 1956, two great Catalan composers, Federico Mompou and Xavier Montsalvatge, collaborated on a project for Barcelona’s Liceu Theater. They wanted to make a ballet adaptation of a Lorca play, The Love of Don Peremplín and Belisa in the Garden. Though not considered one of Lorca’s theatrical masterpieces, it enjoyed some success in its day. Don Peremplín went on to inspire fourteen operas (none of them in the current canon), as well as two musical adaptations, including the one by Billy Strayhorn featured here this past Tuesday.
Lorca’s play told the story of an older man who takes a young woman to wife. The marriage seems doomed. She cuckolds him with no fewer than five lovers on their wedding night. But in true Lorca fashion, the young wife ultimately comes to love her elderly husband, who woos her with anonymous letters and ultimately dies in her arms after a duel. A commedia dell’arte sex farce morphs into a meditation on desire and the deepening of the soul through love.
In 1956, a Lorca-based project was still a hazardous proposition in Barcelona. The poet had been brutally murdered just twenty years earlier by the Fascist regime, and Lorca remained controversial in Franco’s Spain. Revered by some but reviled by others, he was known as a free-spirited gay man with left-wing politics. For the political establishment of the day, that was a dangerous cocktail. Montsalvatge and Mompou hid the overt references to Lorca by changing the title simply to Don Peremplín and leaving the original source material off the publicity. After its premiere, though, the ballet went into hiding. Perhaps its “Lorquismo” was still too obvious and too explosive for its era. The next production of Don Perimplín was not till 35 years later, in 1991.
The score included a fine song by Mompou, “El niño mudo” (“The mute boy”). But the composer didn’t dare go public with his setting of Lorca’s words—it still felt too risky. The song was published posthumously in 2003.
Mompou’s music is a beautiful embodiment of a uniquely Catalan color: diaphanous textures, gently spiky harmonies, simple melodies—a perfect blend of sweet and salty. While his colleague Montsalvatge painted in oils, using rich chords and an sensual palette. Mompou was the watercolorist, a composer of delicate detail and sensitivity. He creates a magical, evanescent world in “El niño mudo”—a silent child lost in a misty world of crickets and mysterious desires.
The little boy seeks his voice.
(The king of the crickets had it.)
In a drop of water
The little boy was seeking his voice.
I don’t want it in order to speak;
I shall make a ring from it
Which my silence will wear
On its little finger.
In a drop of water
The little boy was seeking his voice.
(The captive voice, far in the distance,
Put on a cricket suit.)
I faced a quandary when I was programming the April 24 Lorca concert. Though I try to avoid presenting songs I’ve done in recent concerts, I couldn’t find many suitable examples of cante jondo—the “deep song” of Andalusia that Lorca venerated. He disdained the word “flamenco,” which he called the “tourist version” of cante jondo. But for an American listener the two terms are roughly equivalent, especially in this day and age. Recordings of cante jondo are of course in plentiful supply. What’s almost impossible is finding songs in this style appropriate for the recital stage and classically trained singers. They aren’t built to replicate the sound of flamenco, which is as rough, wide-open, and unmediated as rock ’n’ roll—a scream of pain.
William Bolcom filled the bill when he set a Lorca poem, “Soneto de la dulce queja,” to the cadences of flamenco, complete with wild bravura vocal flourishes accompanied by an ostinato guitar pattern. Bolcom had written his nine-movement Lorca cycle at the request of tenor Plácido Domingo, who even picked out most of the poetry for the cycle. Said the composer, ““I spoke nothing but subway Spanish. But I studied, steeped myself in it. And I listened to flamenco, that raw, almost terrifying outpouring of soul. I heard the rhythm of flamenco in Lorca’s poetry. And that way the tunes inherent in the words began to emerge.” Bolcom had to jump through a few hoops with the Lorca family, who were aware that the poems were just about to move into public domain and wanted their final piece of the action. At the eleventh hour a wealthy donor stepped in and they were able to seal the deal.
Bolcom is rightfully proud of the way he was able to capture the essence of cante jondo. The magic of this song is the three-part nature of the score: a wailing, plaintive vocal line, a hangdog guitar lick rising and falling like the sigh of a man unhappily smitten with love, and the surrealistic chords in the orchestra—or, in our version, the duo-piano. Bolcom’s harmonies are so widely spaced that it takes two players to sound all the notes, and you don’t want to miss a single one of those opulent, sexy chords.
We’ve offered the “Soneto” twice before in recent years: with Theo Lebow in Letters from Spain, and with Matt Pearce and guitarist Jack Gulielmetti in our Bolcom/Corigliano tribute at Juilliard. Both sang it superbly. But this will be our first time with a Spanish-speaking singer, Efraín Solís, and I am very excited to see what he and guitarist Oren Fader bring to this magical piece of music.
René Barbera, with Carl St. Clair conducting the Pacific Symphony
Soneto de la dulce queja (“Sonnet of the sweet complaint”)
Music by William Bolcom (b. 1938); poem by Lorca
No me dejes perder la maravilla
de tus ojos de estatua, ni el acento
que de noche me pone en la mejilla
la solitaria rosa de tu aliento.
Tengo miedo de ser en esta orilla
tronco sin ramas; y lo que más siento
es no tener la flor, pulpa o arcilla,
para el gusano de mi sufrimiento.
Si tú eres el tesoro oculto mío,
si eres mi cruz y mi dolor mojado,
si soy el perro de tu señorío,
no me dejes perder lo que he ganado
y decora las ramas de tu río
con hojas de mi otoño enajenado.
Do not let me lose the marvel
Of your sculpted eyes, nor the light touch
That it places on my cheek at night,
The solitary rose of your breathing.
I have a fear of finding myself on this shore
A branchless tree-trunk; and what I fear more
Is not having the flower, pith, or clay
To feed the worm of my suffering.
If you are my hidden treasure,
If you are my cross and my tear-stained sadness,
If I am the dog and you the master,
Do not let me lose what I have won,
And embellish the branches of your river
With leaves of my maddened autumn.
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.
As I prepare for the April 24 concert, I have become increasingly immersed in the life and poetry of Federico García Lorca. The more I know about this great Spanish writer the more astonishing I find him. His neatly bound volumes of poetry and his famous stage works don’t give a true picture of his chaotic creativity, his unique mix of sophistication and naivety, his long-frustrated sensuality, and his complex heart. At once a fountain of vitality and a death-haunted soul, he longed for the one thing Spain was unwilling to give him: a man he could love without shame or punishment. The songs I’ve chosen for the concert examine some of the many facets of Lorca: the Andalusian outsider who loved the wild cadences of flamenco, the visionary poet, the child-man who longed to be a father himself.
Lorca’s early ambition was to be a pianist, and he always maintained a close connection to music. At parties he’d sit down at the piano and belt out Andalusian songs till the wee hours. But there is only one recording of Lorca-the-pianist: a 6-record album (78s, of course) in which he accompanies a folksinger named La Argentina in his “Colección de Canciones Populares Españolas.” In his early twenties Lorca formed a close friendship with composer Manuel de Falla, and the two of them would roam the countryside gathering folksongs. Each of them published a volume of arrangements. De Falla’s “Siete canciones populares españolas” have become the most often-sung Spanish pieces in the canon, but Lorca’s get performed with some frequency too, either with piano or guitar. Here’s a beauty, “Tres morillas de Jaén.”
The poem, written in the repetitive style of villancico, is not so easy to translate, and there are some hilariously incorrect English versions floating around the internet. (Certain words have a very different meaning in Latin America than they do in Spain, it seems.) Here is what the song really is about: three Moorish women have caught the fancy of the narrator. They go out to gather olives and apples, but they find that the trees are bare. They have nothing to eat. Why? Because their land has been stolen by the Christians. They have also been forced to convert, to leave their religion behind. There are beautiful linguistic subtleties—the way the word “mora” (Moor) is embedded in the word “enamoran” (stole my heart), and the ambiguity of “thieves of my life,” either because the singer has lost his heart to the Moorish women, or because he feels they have come to steal their property back from him. Either way, the song creates a magical atmosphere.
How moving to work on “Tres morillas” at this moment in history. The writer Dorothy Potter Snyder put it best: “At a time when Muslim people are being massacred in their places of worship and threatened by our President, I cannot think of a better moment to present this melancholy song of loss, its cadences so reminiscent of those of Northern Africa that weave through all traditional music from Southern Spain.”
Lorca and La Argentina
Teresa Berganza, with guitarist Narciso Yepes
Three Moorish women stole my heart in Jaén:
Axa and Fátima and Marién.
Three strong Moorish ladies
Went off to pick olives,
And found them all picked in Jaén:
Axa and Fátima and Marién.
And they found they all were picked
And the they all came back dismayed
And drained of color in Jaén:
Axa and Fátima and Marién.
Three Moorish ladies all aglow
Went to pick apples
And found they all were picked in Jaén:
Axa and Fátima and Marién.
I said to them: Who are you, ladies,
Thieves of my life?
“Christian women, we were once Moors in Jaén,”
Axa and Fátima and Marién.
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