My friend Becca Jo’s challenge to stop telling her what performances I didn’t like, and instead show her what I did like, has stayed with me. Ever since our conversation last Friday I’ve been pondering: where does my own heart lie? What is my musical home base? I’ve played everything from blues to Berlioz, Sondheim to Strauss, Tom Waits to Virgil Thomson.
But I think my home base is Italian bel canto.
It’s not surprising. My first love was Gilbert and Sullivan. It wasn’t the excitement of the patter songs, which dazzled me but also made me a little uncomfortable (should grown men be quite so…prissy?). No, it was the Italianate ballads, the big tunes, that spoke to me when I was 7. I eventually graduated to “The Magic Flute” and then the big kahuna: Joan Sutherland’s double album “The Art of the Prima Donna.” I had never imagined virtuosity of this kind—blazing coloratura; full-voiced climaxes up to high E; rapid, lawn-mower trills on command; breath control that seems superhuman.
Music is about lots of things, but I got hooked on the primacy of melody very early. Playing lessons for the Juilliard voice guru Dan Ferro cemented that Italian ideal in my spirit when I was just 22 years old. The odd thing is that I actually don’t much like the bel canto repertoire anymore. Operas by Donizetti and Rossini have lost some of their appeal, especially in the hands of their current exponents. But part of me remains rooted in those principles of vocal and verbal nuance, tonal beauty and expressivity. It’s strange to say it, but whether I’m playing Kurt Weill or Bessie Smith or Hugo Wolf—or Verdi– I’m still led by the throb of Callas singing “Norma,” Sutherland dashing off “La sonnambula.”
More thoughts to come this week. For now, imagine 11-year old Steve putting a monophonic LP on his Steelman phonograph, and hearing this for the first time: “The Soldier Tir’d of War’s Alarms,” by Henry Arne, sung by Joan Sutherland. The rest is history.
This week I thought I’d share some of the music that has filled my recent weeks. It is the Christmas season and we’re about to put up our traditional tree, a present we received at the end of the last century from Jim’s brother and sister. They had each been assigned to one of us in their family’s Christmas lottery, and decided to pool their resources and go in on a gift together. The result was a small plastic tree and a bunch of silvery ornaments—disco balls, hanging oval pendants that I call “Jewish folksinger earrings,” strings of (very) faux-pearls, feathery fronds—as well as strings of lavender lights. To top the tree off, they enclosed a Ken Doll in a purple tunic and a crown. Until that fateful day in 1998 I had never had a Christmas tree or a Hanukkah bush in my house. Suddenly I was witness to an Upper West Side Christmas miracle: a tree of off-the-charts gayness. I would never have purchased such a thing, but my in-laws wanted us to have it. And I love it.
When Jim and I put up the tree, I always play the first Christmas record I ever bought: Joan Sutherland’s The Joy of Christmas. I did not grow up hearing carols, and Dame Joan’s LP was my first sustained exposure to them outside of department stores. I was a teenager. As a result, I have no idea what the lyrics really are. In the late 1960s Sutherland’s diction was at its foggiest. “Joy to the World” sounds something like “Cho to the woo.” But this recording, first cherished on LP and now spinning on CD, means that the Yuletide season has begun. And her “O hoary nooit” (could that be her Australian accent emerging?) is capped by a high C# that always makes me want to convert to Catholicism for about two minutes.
O hoary nooit (“O Holy Night”), sung by Joan Sutherland (Richard Bonynge, cond., Douglas Gamley, arr.)
I’ve just got to feature a piece I’m obsessed with, not a “song” per se, but an opera duet, one of my favorite moments in all of opera, one that I occasionally find myself listening to over and over again because I can’t get enough of it: “Mira, o Norma” from Bellini’s Norma. I love bel canto opera to begin with, and to me this duet is the epitome of the beauty and excitement of this style. It’s SO satisfying. The slow section sucks you right in and washes over you with its warmth, and then the fast section, exhilarating with its syncopated rhythms and soaring thirds, is impossible to listen to it without a giant smile on your face! (In my case happy tears are usually involved as well… it’s what you might call “bel-canto-induced ecstasy.”) The fact that it’s about the building of a strong female friendship makes it that much more rewarding.
There are several wonderful and classic recordings of this, but when it comes to video clips, I have a soft spot for this one with Marilyn Horne and Joan Sutherland from an Ed Sullivan Show telecast in 1970. It’s partly because Sutherland/Horne was the first Norma/Adalgisa pairing I ever heard, and because I don’t think it gets any better than Marilyn Horne on Adalgisa — it’s probably my favorite thing in her voice (and there are a lot of things I love in her voice). When she begins this piece, I can just feel myself absolutely melting. The other thing I love about this particular clip is the old telecast look — it makes me somehow nostalgic for a time when I wasn’t even alive, a time when opera stars were household names and were regulars on mainstream television. Not to mention the fact that I get such a kick out of their late-60s/early-70s style here (that hair!!) — Horne looks so absolutely radiant in that green dress with the never-ending sleeves! But most importantly, these are two of the most glorious voices of our time. The beauty and resonance and seeming effortlessness of their sound, their legato, their phrasing, the elegant way in which they hold themselves — it’s bel canto singing at its best.
This piece also holds some beautiful memories for me — I first really took note of the duet several years ago when I was an apprentice artist in the Bel Canto at Caramoor program. I had heard “Casta diva” many times but didn’t know the rest of the opera very well. Will Crutchfield played a recording for us during one of his lectures (I’m fairly certain this was the lecture on legato) which included a clip of this duet. I remember being especially captivated by Horne’s Adalgisa. And that summer, we happened to also be performing Norma up at Caramoor’s Venetian Theater, so we young artists were the chorus. It was one of the most exhilarating and memorable chorus experiences I’ve ever had (notwithstanding the 90+ degree heat and profuse sweating from everyone on stage in the semi-outdoor theater). For starters, standing mere feet from Angela Meade while she sang “Casta diva” was thrilling! And Bellini’s chorus music was so much fun to sing (especially the “Guerra, guerra” chorus!). But then, when we weren’t on stage, I hovered just offstage in the wings to watch the rest of it go down; I just about bawled from the emotion of watching that duet for the first time, with Meade and Keri Alkema as Adalgisa, in the absolutely electric atmosphere that is the packed Venetian Theater. Unforgettable.
And now I’m finally learning the duet myself (about to perform it in recital with the wonderful soprano Reyna Carguill on May 1st at 2:30pm at Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village — shameless plug!), and so I have been working on it with one of my coaches and mentors, none other than Marilyn Horne herself. It’s more than a little surreal to sing the opening line for Adalgisa herself and then have her pipe right in on Norma’s line, clearly in the style of Sutherland! Just priceless.
So it seems my obsession with this duet will not end any time soon! I hope to sing the whole role someday, but for not I will wallow in the joy of this scene. Enjoy this clip, and then go look up all the other wonderful Norma/Adalgisa pairs of the past! Who are your favorites?<
from Steven Blier:
To commemorate this sad, solemn day, I turn to the things that have comforted me during my life. One of them is the Verdi Requiem, a towering work of art. I first fell under its spell when I was thirteen; the Price-Bjoerling recording was a bar mitzvah present. Here is a very rare 1960 performance that I didn’t even know existed, conducted by the maestro I revere the most, Carlo Maria Giulini. Joan Sutherland and Fiorenza Cossotto are the female soloists, both at the beginning of their international careers. The Sutherland you’ll hear in this recording might surprise you: a fiery musician with clear diction and a firm, clarion line. What a pleasure to hear that peerless voice wedded to Giulini’s Olympian artistic vision. The gleam of her sound transcends the tubby recorded quality, even on my computer speakers. “Recordare,” the soprano/mezzo duet, starts at minute 25; the “Libera me” gets underway at 1:06:30.
This has been a rewarding, full summer. But it was also a summer of losses: Jim Marcus, Margaret Juntwait, Marshall Izen, Steve Damron’s dad, Robert Duerr’s father, my piano tuner Alexander Ostrovsky, and just this weekend John Perrault, the husband of a close friend. I take comfort from the idea that they are now hearing Sutherland and Giulini in heaven doing all the works they should have done together during their terrestrial years. Recordings of Don Giovanni and the Verdi Requiem are all that we poor mortals have from them.
from Steven Blier:
Joan Sutherland was my childhood passion. In junior high I used to go into classrooms and scribble “Joan is supreme” in the corner of the blackboard, probably some botched attempt to be transgressive. In the 1970s and 80s I cooled a bit on Sutherland’s singing, but when I hear those early recordings I realize I actually had pretty good taste when I was a young spud. She was thrilling. From her first “Don Giovanni” recording (1958) under the galvanizing baton of Carlo Maria Giulini (another idol of mine), here’s Donna Anna’s Act I aria, “Or sai chi l’onore,” with the recitative. Not only can you understand every word (even with her Australian accent peeking through), but there is an intensity and immediacy in her singing that was to get somewhat calcified in later years. Here she sounds like an impassioned, frightened young woman who might have been raped—amazing vocal acting from a singer people think of as cold and “technical.”
And a couple of bonus tracks, for the enthusiasts: an excerpt from a live 1960 Verdi Requiem with Giulini—again, that amazing fire and energy that I had so loved when I first heard her at age 11. She was a fireball when she worked with Giulini, no question (dig that open-chest G-natural before the start of the fugue):
And a rare outing in Puccini—“Vissi d’arte’ from “Tosca” from a 1968 Bell Telephone Hour broadcast which I remember watching with my parents on our black-and-white TV set. She wears a “have-you-no-gay-friends” dress, Tito Gobbi glowers in the background; Sutherland cranes her neck up as she always did when she sang, and then delivers a lesson in breath control that is pretty staggering. “Vissi d’arte” comes out as “Vossi d’arte”—Joan sang the vowels that she thought sounded most beautiful. Y’know…I’ll take it.
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