Song of the Day turns 3 this week! Here’s a look back at our first week of songs (beginning June 15, 2015) from NYFOS’s artistic director Steven Blier.
This song-a-day blog is a project I’ve had in mind for years, and I am thrilled to share some of the vocal music I love—from the sublime to the ridiculous. To kick the venture off with a bang, two renditions of the Queen of the Night’s rage aria (Act II, Mozart’s Magic Flute). The first: Maria Galvany, Spanish coloratura from the early years of this century. She was known for her rapid-fire staccato singing, and if the composer didn’t give her sufficient chances to show it off, she simply wrote her own. The second: Peruvian purveyor of exotica Yma Súmac, an icon of my teenage years. She offers the aria with a mambo beat. In Spanish. A minor third lower. With tribal growls. Play all the way to then end. In honor of Gay Pride month, two fabulous Queens.
Last year I saw a ‘new’ musical theatre piece that was a collaboration between lyricist Vid Guerrerio and the greatest musical theatre composer of them all…Mozart. The piece was called Figaro (90210), and it brilliantly updated the opera to present-day L.A. Susanna is an illegal immigrant who has been working in a sweatshop, and is now a maid working for ‘Paul Conti’, a shady businessman who has promised to sponsor her for a green card in return for services rendered. First performed in L.A. before the presidential primaries a couple of years ago, it was/is of our moment and of all time (since it is Mozart!).
The lyrics are clever, meaningful and recreate the connivings and longings of the da Ponte libretto in colloquial 2015 English and Spanish. Particularly moving was a refitting of Cherubino’s “Voi Che Sapete”, sung by ‘B-Man’, an aspiring rapper who is encouraged to rewrite his love song in a spirit of honesty and open-heartedness. I wept. I first saw this during the primary season last year, and then once again recently in the age of Trump. On second viewing I cried through half of the piece; partly because there are so many emotional moments in the Mozart opera, but mostly because it felt like the writer gave me a journey back through time: I felt the sense of immediacy and danger that audiences must have felt in the 1790’s, the depiction of a world where everyone feels threatened, and where order, loyalty, respect, humanity, fidelity are tenuous values.
Guerrerio made what at first seemed an unforgivable choice: he removed the emotional high point of the Mozart/ da Ponte, Susanna’s “Deh Vieni” in Act Four (a declaration of longing that she makes when she knows that Figaro is secretly listening). When the curtain call came I felt bereft that this production had eliminated it…but then a final coda came, with Susanna (played by Samarie Alicea), the Mexican immigrant, singing that aria directly to the audience with these words:
My friends let’s all join hands we’re in this together
Whether we like it or not, the only choice we’ve got
Is try to ‘turn back time’ to some simpler fiction
Or embrace life’s complexity and contradiction.
It’s messy and so very stressful, yes it’s very stressful and scary too
True, but messy humanity? That’s nothing new.
Tough times may test us
But they also can bring out the best us
God has blessed us
Not with the answers, no, answers always get it wrong
We’re blessed with questions and song.
Answers divide us, we’re meant to search and seek and strive
And sing…together…as long as we’re alive
This is my final selection, with it’s simple but far-reaching message…It applies to all facets of life, and to the challenges that each era and each generation faces. It also expresses why I and myriad others are so grateful for our NYFOS journeys. We have been brought together by artists who have enlightened and moved us; like Astaire, faced the music and danced with us; like Mary Cleere Haran, mused on this funny world; have given us love songs and lullabies; made us feel more sure of ourselves through the gifts of their artistry, and blessed us with questions and song.
I’m back for a week of holiday music. First up, Leontyne Price with the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan from 1960 (it was released Jan 1, 1961). The CD is titled Christmas.
It is Price at her prime and her best and in the hands of Karajan with the Vienna Philharmonic it is a magical collaboration rarely heard. The recording captures that gorgeous shimmering lush sound that she was famous for and here, performing these beautiful carols and hymns, it is simply one of the loveliest Christmas recordings (or recordings period) ever produced.
The two selections I offer are Mozart’s “Alleluia” and Adams’ “O Holy Night.” I expect you will not want to listen to any other recording of “O Holy Night” after listening to this.
“Alleluia” from Mozart’s Exsultate, jubilate, K. 165
“O Holy Night” by Adolphe Adams
And now for some parent-related frivolity courtesy of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. This duet makes having lots of little ones running around sound like nothing but fun, but I’d love to hear another version of this ten years down the line once all of those little Papagenos and Papagenas have their parents busy! This recording features Bryn Terfel and Miah Persson.
This week, soprano María Valdés curates Song of the Day. She will perform with NYFOS next Tuesday, April 26th, in Compositora: Songs by Latin American Women, alongside baritone Efraín Solís. She is a recent alumna of the Adler Fellowship at San Francisco Opera where she sang and covered several roles. Her performance with NYFOS will mark her New York recital debut.
Mozart – Et incarnatus est- Barbara Bonney
Mozart’s C Minor Mass was my first professional job. I was very excited (and nervous) to perform this piece at the Bellingham Festival of Music in Washington. Unfortunately, before the gig I came down with a killer case of pneumonia and wasn’t able to sing for a month. With only a couple weeks left until rehearsals began, I slowly attempted to get back into shape. During my first coaching—this is hilarious now but mortifying at the time—I was singing this and half way through collapsed onto the piano. My lungs just couldn’t expand enough to prepare for the long phrases. Luckily for me, I recovered soon after and had a successful performance in the end!
Now, this aria is difficult on its own, but it comes at the very end of a LONG sing. I remembered having a sense of impending doom when the orchestra began. I’m sure many of my singer friends can relate when I say that the maestro inevitably took the slowest possible tempo. I thought to myself, how can I ever do justice to this exquisite composition? How will I make it through? But when the strings swelled before my entrance it was smooth sailing from there. That’s because this piece has a way of making time stand still. It kind of feels like being wrapped in a soft blanket and being placed on top of a cloud. Mmmmm.
Barbara Bonney definitely takes us to that place in her interpretation. There is nothing showy about her delivery, even as she effortlessly glides through the technical challenges this piece presents. Her voice becomes an instrument and the instruments become voices, culminating with a call and response duet between the soprano and oboe.
I hope you all enjoy this idyllic setting of “Et incarnatus est.”
This week our SoTD curator is Laura Lee Everett, the Director of Artistic Services at OPERA America, who’s had a long and varied career in opera—stage managing, mentoring young artists, facilitating the creation of new works, and more—at companies all across the U.S., from Alaska to Virginia. (She’s also helped NYFOS present our NYFOS Next series at the National Opera Center for the past few years. You can catch it there in February 2016!) Thank you and welcome, Laura Lee!
Opera vexes me.
I love working on new operas. Collaborating on premieres by Carlisle Floyd, Dominic Argento, Lee Hoiby, Jake Heggie and John Musto is extremely exciting. It is also exhausting.
I love working on “bread and butter” repertoire: Aida, Butterfly, Carmen, Tosca. Blood, sex and violence, tunes you can hum – great pieces, to be sure. But I grow weary of them when I repeatedly work on the same pieces. I did 6 productions of La Traviata in 9 months and it liked to have killed me. But there is one thing I never tire of, that constantly challenges me musically and emotionally and makes it clear why I love this art form.
There is nothing with stronger roots to ground me to music than Mozart.
To some, I know that sounds a bit clichéd, but after 25 years of working on everything from Montiverdi to Howard Shore, Mozart cleanses my palette and feeds my soul. When hearing singers in training, Mozart is the place you cannot hide. His arias will show everything you can or cannot yet do with your instrument and your imagination.
Mozart knows how to tell a good story. He picked several of the most controversial of his time to set to music. His skill was in telling stories that exposed all facets of human relationships and the emotions are all written in the music. I have several favorite Mozart operas, but the top of my list is Die Zauberflöte – The Magic Flute. You may poke whatever fun you like about that (opera purists – looking at you) but it is a show that I both performed in and worked on many times and I always take a great emotional journey through the piece. One aria in particular can be the single most devastating and beautiful piece of music – Pamina’s only aria “Ach, ich fühl’s”. Rare for a Mozart ingénue to only have one aria, but it is so powerful and unlike so much else of his writing. It stands as the one moment in the piece where she completely gives in to despair, yet makes a clear decision to end her life, thus driving responses from everyone around her in the story. There are titles on the attached video, but here is the translation:
Ah, I feel it, it has disappeared
Forever gone love’s happiness.
Nevermore will come the hour of bliss
Back to my heart!
See, Tamino, these tears,
Flowing, beloved, for you alone.
If you don’t feel the longing of love
Then there will be peace in death!
Pretty heady stuff for a comic singspiel written for the public theater house. This song always makes me think of Benedict’s mocking line about love songs from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing:
‘Is it not strange that sheep’s guts could hail souls out of men’s bodies?’
In times of woe and sadness, this piece does just that for me.
Here is a somewhat fuzzy video, but with titles in English, of Kathleen Battle performing in the 1991 production from the Metropolitan Opera, James Levine conducting. (Francisco Araiza as Tamino and Manfred Hemm as Papageno).
(The aria starts around 2:00 mins into the clip)
New York Festival of Song • One Penn Plaza • #6108 • New York, NY 10119 • 646-230-8380 • firstname.lastname@example.org