I am delving this week into the playlist of Manning the Canon: Songs of Gay Life. Much of the program focuses on scenes from contemporary life, but I also wanted to give some airplay to gay composers from the past. Many of them had to keep their same-sex affairs on the down-low, due to their era’s discrimination against homosexuality. Whatever they didn’t conceal themselves got expunged later on by their early biographers or their families. And yet their stories have emerged—not without controversy—in our more enlightened times. We know a fair amount about Tchaikovsky’s loves, and Charles Griffes’ long affair with a married New York cop (back when all policemen were male).
I took a bit of a liberty when I included Manuel de Falla—he ends a section called “Mixed Signals.” There’s no evidence that he had male lovers. There is also no evidence that he had female lovers. He moved in gay circles both in Paris and in Granada, and was very close to Federico García Lorca. He lived in repressive times, and he was a devout Catholic. My intuition tells me he was deeply in the closet, too frozen to act on his true desires. I think he’d be abashed to see his name on our concert, but once he got used to the idea I think it would warm his heart. It’s never too late to come out.
The song I chose is the finale of his canonic cycle “Seven Popular Spanish Songs.” It’s a mistake to assume that songs are autobiographical. But with my lurking hunch about de Falla’s sexuality and his reluctance to form any kind of love relationship, the lyrics to this piece might have come from his very soul:
I bear a sorrow in my heart
That I shall tell no one.
Cursed be love, and curses
On him who made me feel it!
Here is a performance by Marilyn Horne and Martin Katz. I heard Horne sing this at Carnegie Hall in the late 60s—my first live performance of the cycle—and I am still vibrating to the full, open chest voice she used that night at “que a nadie se lo diré”—“that I shall tell no one.” This recording captures it for all time.
Check this one out too—stylish, powerful, and brilliantly accurate in the flamenco passagework: Teresa Berganza, with orchestra conducted by Raymond Leppard:
I love this popular song because of the simplicity and charm it brings out from the moving eighth notes on both the voice and piano. Sometimes the least pretentious can be most rewarding.
Leontyne Price with Barber at the piano
Marilyn Horne with Martin Katz
“Sing for Your Supper”, a Rodgers and Hart trio from The Boys from Syracuse is irresistibly goofy, especially when it’s done so enthusiastically by world class singers. I couldn’t decide who did it better—the Broadway stars Rebecca Luker, Audra McDonald and Mary Testa or the opera legends Frederica von Stade, Marilyn Horne and Renee Fleming. The former is not the best sound in the world, but clearly, all of them were having a wonderful time. So, I have included them both and you get to choose. A lot of its glory comes from the vocal arrangement by Hugh Martin, who was also a composer. He deserves a credit. Eighty plus years after he wrote that arrangement, everyone still uses it.
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?<
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