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Tchaikovsky: Ja vas lyublu

Dobriy den…(Good day in RU & UA) to you, lovely people. Today, I want to invite you to live with me in the sound and soul of one of my all time favorite artists, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, as well as one of my all time favorite composers, Pyotr the Great, Mr. Tchaikovsky! Next week, my fellow colleagues and I will perform a few masterpieces by Rachmaninoff, but for now you can whet your appetite with Tchaikovsky. And, I do not apologize that it’s not quite a small plate kind of appetizer. It is Russian after all. Russians and Ukrainians alike, like to have “salo” (bacon and not the American kind. It’s almost pure fat, preferably served with raw garlic) for a snack.

Last year, I debuted with NYFOS singing a mostly Tchaikovsky program with the incredible baritone, Alexey Lavrov, who is the next ‘Dmitri Hvorostovsky,’ I think. First of all, when I sing Tchaikovsky’s music, it particularly feels like butter on my vocal cords. Of course Tchaikovsky is going to be one of my favorites for that, but more so because of the unlimited passion and sincerity in his music. I never have to plan or dissect Tchaikovsky’s music too much to understand what he wanted. I enter his vein of music instantly and feel it naturally rather than trying to understand it. Perhaps because we were next door neighbors. And, on top of it all, listening to Dmitri perform anything by Tchaikovsky is like eating a double death by chocolate cake.

As most of you know, we lost Hvorostovsky last year, too soon. It was a great tragedy to the world. He was one in a million who possessed a strong gorgeous pillar of a voice, impeccable artistry, and the most refined natural vocal technique that always served the music. Listening and watching him sing always gives me this thrilling feeling and makes me feel everything he is expressing. Also, every video you watch of him, is an amazing voice lesson. He is an absolute master and complete artist. Every note, every single note is telling a story. In this love song aria, and this recording particularly, “Ja vas lyublu” (“I love you”) from Queen of Spades, Dmitri pours out his heart with such intensity and love. I listen to it over and over and cannot get enough. It’s so special and so sensational. Every note truly shows how much he loves her. He doesn’t let go of any note. Every note, every millisecond of this piece is infused with love, energy and passion. It just takes my breath away. Ah, just heart wrenching. He is so committed and honest. And, one can CLEARLY understand every word with out focusing, too much. Thank you to both Mr. Hvorostovsky  and Mr.Tchaikovsky for such a gift.

Again, we are touched by truth because the artist is truthful in the moment to himself, the music, the composer, and to the audience. He doesn’t do anything over the top or cheat us by giving less, he is simply honest. That’s what we desperately desire and here we are totally satisfied.

(I advise you listen to this on good speakers or head phones to experience the full thrill of passion and the sound of his voice.)

Verdi: Solenne in quest’ora

We’ve made it… IT’S FRIDAY!!!!

So, what genres do I have left on my phone to explore? Well, frankly too many… so I’m going to avoid making you listen to a bunch of Jazz, Pop, Musicals, etc;. And no matter how tempting it is to tell you how They Might Be Giants has probably influenced me more than any other contemporary music, I’m going to go a different route. Instead, I am going to share some opera with you.

I mentioned in Wednesday’s blog how I feel about opera, but let’s just say that we didn’t hit it off at first. When I started college at Shenandoah Conservatory (all those years ago), I was a musical theater major. I loved singing and acting, but I didn’t really have much interest in opera, so I set my sights on Broadway. After one semester of early morning ballet classes, I began to think that perhaps I had chosen the wrong major, and I changed over to voice performance at the end of my Freshman year.

I loved my new voice teacher, Bard Suverkrop, and I  immediately liked the complexity of performing opera… the way it challenged my mind to be present as an actor while also constantly having these systems of memory and physicality running on high priority in the background. It was (and is) very fun to do. I instantly got a lot of encouragement and I felt great about my choice to switch majors… but I didn’t really LIKE watching or listening to opera. It all seemed so staid and boring and safe. I remember conversations with my classmates where I hated on Callas, Terfel, and several other of my heroes (God, I was a douche… a big sorry to everyone I knew in those days).

But then, in a single clarifying moment, the course of my life would be forever changed. I was playing a video game on my computer, and decided to put on a CD that a friend let me borrow. I was just half listening to it in the background… and then, my operatic innocence was shattered by the most powerful high C I’d heard in my young naive life. Franco Corelli, at the end of Di quella pira. I sat there in kind of a shocked stunned silence…and then listened to it several more times. I just didn’t understand how I could be so wrong about opera. This was passionate… almost reckless… visceral and masculine… I LOVED THIS!!! And thus, my life was forever changed.

So, for your listening pleasure, a video of my favorite tenor (Corelli) and my favorite baritone (Bastianini) singing together in Napoli. The thing I love most about this video is how real and unproduced it is. You can see Bastianini stealing looks at the conductor, they aren’t together with the orchestra, you can hear the prompter, Corelli sings sharp, they get hissed at by the audience, and I’m pretty sure somebody throws rotten vegetables at them at the end.

It is real, and astounding, and beautiful… at least to me.

Thanks for reading, and for supporting my friends and colleagues at NYFOS. I’ve had a great time sharing some of my favorite music with you, and I hope you enjoyed yourself. To keep up with my singing engagements, I encourage you to visit my website www.JoshuaJeremiahBaritone.com, and to like my artist page over on Facebook at Joshua Jeremiah, Baritone.

Have a great weekend, and may the force be with you!

William Bolcom: An Admirer

To celebrate NYFOS’s 30th Anniversary Season, Song of the Day is featuring some selections from our commercial recordings, along with excerpts from the notes that accompanied them. Inspired by last week’s celebration of William Bolcom at our NYFOS@Juilliard concert, here is an excerpt from Steven Blier’s program notes for Bastianello and Lucrezia, NYFOS’s double bill of comic operas, commissioned from composers John Musto and William Bolcom, with libretti by Mark Campbell. 

Although Bastianello’s libretto was the first to be written, the first music we received was the score to Lucrezia. This Machiavelli classic was the second idea Bill and Mark had for their opera; they initially considered a play by Johann Nestroy called The Talisman, about a town with a prejudice against redheads. But they both felt it would need more than one act and a larger cast to work. Machiavelli’s La Mandragola was Mark’s next idea, and he eventually convinced Bill that the idea had legs. “I liked it because it was centered around a woman,” Bill told me, “and (in our version) a woman who comes out on top. I had only one proviso: I wanted to set it in Argentina.” Why? “Well, I wanted to write a zarzuela…as imagined by the Marx Brothers.” I wondered if Bill was aware of how much Spanish and Latin American music NYFOS has programmed over the last two decades—and if he knew of our programs dedicated to Spanish light opera. “Oh! No. Well, that’s a plus, then!”

Indeed, Lucrezia melds the smoldering musical worlds of Astor Piazzolla, Osvaldo Golijov, Federico Moreno Torroba, and Enrique Granados with the comic sensibility of an American screwball comedy. In Lucrezia, Bill and Mark created something I have longed for: the first zarzuela packed wall to wall with great tunes and great jokes. Having played so much Latin music, I was aware of the many styles Bill used in this score—and not all of them Spanish. The overture recalls Raymond Scott, the genius of American cartoon soundtracks. But soon there are Lecuona-style tangos (Lorenzo’s first aria), then fierce Andalusian bullfight music (the duet for Ignacio and Chucho), elegant scenes that recall Granados at his most refined (the final duet for Lorenzo and Lucrezia), scintillating waltzes à la Rosenkavalier (the duet for Annunciata and Lucrezia), fiery jotas (Lucrezia’s “potion aria”), a section that I could swear is a sly tribute to Ned Rorem (the beginning of the bedroom scene), gestures that recall Rossini and Verdi, and an hommage to James Brown. Throughout, there are wonderful harmonies redolent of American jazz.

I commented to Bill that his evocation of Argentina had a lot of Spain in it. He explained, “No, the piece is neither intrinsically Argentinean nor Spanish. All those cultures shared their dance rhythms, there was always a lot of trading around. Tangos and habaneras started in Cuba and quickly migrated everywhere. I’m not into the authenticity of it—I’m into the fun of it.” Bill saw Lucrezia as part of a larger tradition. “I once saw some Yiddish operettas—I couldn’t understand all the words, but the situations were the same as in all light entertainments: mothers and daughters, marriages, philandering guys. They were hugely enjoyable, and that’s what I wanted.” — Steven Blier

Lucrezia’s aria “An Admirer”, sung by Sasha Cooke

Stanisław Moniuszko: Szumią jodły na gór szczycie

Stanisław Moniuszko’s Halka is regarded as the Polish national opera and is widely performed in the composer’s homeland. However, the opera is seldom heard outside Poland despite its charming folk dances, haunting melodies, and a star turn for a lyric soprano.

Halka and Jontek grew up together in the mountains of Poland. Jontek’s designs on Halka run deeper than friendship, but Halka is deeply in love with Janusz, the owner of a nearby town, after the two have an affair which leaves Halka pregnant. As required for a proper unrequited operatic love triangle, Janusz doesn’t tell Halka he is engaged to another woman. At the beginning of Act Four, Jontek sits outside the church before Janusz’s wedding and sings this aria as he waits for Halka to arrive and crash the wedding. Spoiler alert: Jontek doesn’t convince Halka he can provide the happiness she desires and after Janusz is married she throws herself in the river—as is required for a properly tragic operatic finale.

Shameless plug: Those readers who are interested in hearing Poland’s national opera for yourself can come to the Bard Summer Music Festival on August 19 to hear Amanda Majeski sing Halka, Aubrey Allicock as Janusz, and yours truly as the unloved Jontek.

Oh, miserable Halka!
She wants to come here.
Hasn’t she had enough tears and sorrow?
She is still thinking about that unfaithful man.
When she sees him with his wife, She may die!
Oh, merciful Jesus!
May Your hand protect this lost girl!
Oh, Lord, take care of her, take care of her!
Maybe somebody will persuade her not to come,
I could not…

Firs are soughing on the mountains peaks,
They are soughing freely,
But my life is sad
As I have a grudge in my heart.
I feel it not for any other human being,
But for you, my poor dear!
Oh, Halino, oh my only one,
My dearest girl!

When we both were children,
I was wandering among black rocks
And climbing down precipices,
As I was looking for colorful birds for you.
I was bringing you
Flowers of the nicest smell
And the most beautiful
Coral beads from fairs.
I do not blame anybody,
But you, my poor dear
Oh, Halino, oh my only one,
It is your fault.

A small quickset is growing!
It becomes a tree;
You grew up and were a miracle to me.
Ach! I would jump into a fire after you.
Years, like winds, blow away,
They flow like fast streams.
A young noble man arrived
And because of him
You rejected me.
I do not blame anybody,
But you, my poor dear.
Oh, Halino, oh my only one,
My dearest girl!


Richard Wagner: Die Frist ist um

I couldn’t submit five choices without choosing one piece operatic.  Ok, it’s a bit long but it’s Richard Wagner, the early years when he was still in his ‘bel canto’ period.  And baby, could he ever write a melody and throw some rockin’ orchestration at it.

The Dutchman is looking for a little peace of mind here.  This is one tormented guy for lots of reasons.  He is in need of serious redemption and is meant to finally find it in the love of a good woman.  Turbulent seas in the orchestra, soaring vocal lines, dead silence—all here.  This is human torment agonizingly yet glowingly set to music. I use the word human, though we at my house refer to the Dutchman as Wagner’s version of the Undead.

The Dutchman in this recording ain’t half bad either, if I may say so myself.

Puccini: “No, pazzo son” from Manon Lescaut, sung by Beniamino Gigli

On “Going There”

I spent three hours of my day today listening to my fellow young artists here in LA sing arias for each other, with feedback from our fearless leader Josh Winograde, whose job is the hiring of singers. These sessions are a chance for us to get up, sing something that may be a total work in progress, and work through our challenges. One thing that Josh says time and time again is to “give us what we want.” I think this is so poignant, and a topic of much debate among modern musicians.

American singers in particular are trained so acutely to be polished and correct. Years and years are spent in diction and ear training classes so that we can speed-learn whatever is put in front of us. Some of us even have the privilege of receiving years of acting training so that we can not only follow direction, but add our own impulses to our performances. It’s both the blessing and the curse of having the most functional musical education system in the world. We come out of conservatory with every tool we need, but in the end, most of us do not go to the interpretative depths that we could. If we are given all these tools, we should be able to deliver some of the best interpretations around, right? In theory, yes, but in reality, this is far from the case.

Let this be a PSA to all musicians who seek to stand up in front of people and sing them a song: Do not apologize. When you’re about to perform, think about what you would want to see, and then do that thing. The real question is “why would you not go there?”

Someone who exemplified this so much is Beniamino Gigli. He lived from 1890 to 1957, and was arguably the most famous tenor of his generation. He lived a complex life, riddled with scandal. Most great artists do. Think about it. What great artists do we know of who lead simple, by-the-book lives? He created some of the most intense, heart-wrenching interpretations of his repertoire ever recorded. Below is his performance of “No, pazzo son” from Manon Lescaut. He actually interpolates things that aren’t even in the score, but guess what? No one is complaining.

This rant is all to say that we as artists should never settle. We should always seek to reach new depths in what we perform. We generally sing pieces that are well-trodden paths, but we should always seek to add our own unique interpretation. Some may call this gilding the lily, but I just call it being the best musician one can be. Go there. You’ll be glad you did, and so will your audience.

Giuseppe Verdi: The Sleepwalking Scene from “Macbeth”

Today’s blog post is less about a particular song and rather what I have been experiencing as of late after having made the move from New York City to Los Angeles, where I just joined the young artist program at LA Opera. It has been such a beautiful move in so many ways. Exploring new places is always a perk of this job, but even more so now that I have the ability to drive, which I haven’t for the past 23 years. I love LA’s stark polar-oppositeness to New York. Of course, I have inklings of missing Manhattan, but The West has a wonderful, strange mysticism that I am enjoying thoroughly. To have a brand new home base for the next few years is a very special thing, and I’m very pleased (and relieved) to say that it is a great fit.

My first production here at the LA Opera is Verdi’s Macbeth, with Placido Domingo singing the title role, and a cast of some of the most brilliantly produced voices I’ve ever been around. Even the covers for the leading roles are absolutely world-class. This being said, I feel totally inadequate and out of my element in a Verdi rehearsal room. Firstly, I was not born with a Verdian instrument, so the music hasn’t been on my performance radar whatsoever. Secondly, there is something about the darkness and brutality of the Verdi vibe that just doesn’t lend itself to what I love so much about the creation of this art form. Steven Blier and I were in San Fransisco to perform a recital together, and we went to go see Don Carlo at SFO. It was a stellar cast, and there were incredible moments, but I walked out feeling strangely disconnected, a feeling I do not usually experience leaving the opera. Steve turned to me and basically said, “you know that was a very good Don Carlo, right?” I thought about it, and he was absolutely right. I could not pinpoint what I did not relate to about the piece, but I suppose it was just that. I simply did not relate to a 4-hour epic about the Spanish Inquisition.

This is not to say I don’t love Verdi’s incredible scores. Macbeth is filled with some of Verdi’s most epically haunting music. Take the curse music from Rigoletto (even though Macbeth precedes it) and essentially expand it across four acts. My favorite part of the entire piece (although it is a very hard call) is Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene. Maybe I’m biased, because this is the scene in which I make my humble debut with the company as the Doctor, who bears witness to the madness of Lady Macbeth. This scene has quickly become one of my favorite mad scenes in opera. Am I a huge fan of Verdi’s setting of the works of Shakespeare? Eh. Not in the long run. However, under a microscope, each of the key moments in the plot are set with the type of intensity that only Verdi can supply. We are left with some absolutely incredible pieces of musical drama.

If I felt strange and out of place in the rehearsal room, my discomforts were quelled when we got into the theater. It turns out Verdi didn’t write Macbeth for a rehearsal room, and it is certainly something exhilarating to be onstage in a gorgeous 3000+ seat house hearing these singers do what they do (and doing a bit of it myself), learning from the dark, majestic sect of this art form called Verdi. Here for your listening pleasure is Maria Callas singing Lady Macbeth’s final grand scena, the Sleepwalking Scene, from Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth.

Mozart: “Pa Pa Pa Pa” from The Magic Flute

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.

Gian Carlo Menotti: Steal me, sweet thief

from Christine Taylor Price:

“Steal me, sweet thief” has been one of my favorite arias since I heard it about 2 years ago. I only started singing it recently because my usual English aria, “No Word from Tom” from Stravinsky’s opera The Rakes Progress (another must-listen), wasn’t quite doing it for me anymore. “Steal me” is one of the only well known arias by Menotti. From his opera, The Old Maid and the Thief, written for radio in 1939, it was extremely well-recieved by the American audience which, made it easy for Menotti to start paving his own way as an opera composer in America.

Laetitia is the character who sings “Steal me”. She is Miss Todd’s housekeeper and is a young, beautiful, sparky girl who just wants to be loved, so when Bob shows up looking for a place to stay, Laetitia convinces Miss Todd to give him the guest room. They soon realize that Bob is a thief so, of course, Miss Todd wants to get rid of him but Laetitia has been falling in love with him and again convinces her to let him stay. Day-dreaming, Laetita sings steal me, sweet thief, wishing her life would start before she grows old and gray.

Laura Kaminsky: As One

This week I wanted to look at composers not yet featured on NYFOS programs who have exceptional ‘voices’ in the contemporary realm and more specifically, ones with a natural facility writing for the voice in particular. In Laura Kaminsky’s case, her entree into the opera world would not only have tremendous impact in the classical, social and artistic scenes, but she also would introduce a subject matter so current that soon thereafter it became a cultural obsession—the experience of being transgender.

Opera was, it seems, a gentle and welcome place for that conversation to get started. This was 2014, so before we met ‘Caitlin’ Jenner and shortly before Transparent premiered on Amazon. The setting was ripe and since its premiere at BAM, it has been produced in nearly a dozen cities here and abroad. That is unique for new music! You’d think Laura would need to have written an opera beforehand to have had such a slam dunk but it wasn’t the case. The same goes with David Bruce’s full-length opera Nothing and Joby Talbot’s Everest. They all had an immediate facility in the art form, a genre considered by many to be the most difficult—opera, the synthesis of so many forces all at once. This is certainly part of the reason there is a lot of BAD new opera…it’s just so damn hard to pull off. Laura teamed up with phenomenal, Pulitzer-prize winning librettist Mark Campbell (whom I first met with NYFOS doing the premieres of his two operas, Lucrezia by Bolcom and Musto’s Bastianello, both comic masterpieces) and librettist/filmmaker Kimberly Reed, on whose story the opera is based. The union of these three great minds could not have been more serendipitous. When my husband baritone Kelly Markgraf and I first read through the libretto, we were in tears. So on multiple levels, the work was profound. Laura had heard Kelly and I sing together four years before at Symphony Space while she was the Artistic Director there. She asked us on the spot if we’d consider premiering an opera of hers—the idea for it hadn’t even yet been fully conceived. In the final product, the male and female singers would represent the male and female aspects of the protagonist Hannah. Kelly’s part (the male) was more prominent in the beginning of the piece and by the end, the mezzo (female part) had fully taken hold. So on that level as well it was a revolutionary idea—two sides of the same person played by two different singing-actors. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen that in straight theater OR opera. Then for Kelly and I, a married couple, to explore this uncharted, potent and highly emotional material together was one of the greatest privileges of our lives. Every now and then with new music, you get the feeling you should be pinching yourself. So forgive me for being biased!! In the following video, you’ll see clips from the protagonist’s experiences in ‘Paper Route’ ‘Sex Ed’, ‘The Perfect Boy’ where Hannah-before tries to do everything athletic she can to make herself fit in as a boy, ‘To Know’ where Hannah-before hears the word ‘transgender’ for the first time on TV (Kim and Mark brilliantly never actually mention the literal word) and the final vignette ‘Norway’ where Hannah-after fully embraces herself and takes a brave step forward as her true self, ‘As One.’

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