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Carol Neblett sings Puccini

I ventured into the Met to hear The Girl of the Golden West last week. I’d never seen the now-venerable Giancarlo del Monaco production—never heard this opera at the Met, in fact—and I’d never seen Jonas Kaufmann live. Neither of us is getting any younger and I pride myself on having heard all the major voices since I started going to the opera in 1963.  So I secured a standing room ticket and hauled myself into the theater.

This Puccini opera is a bear to sing, especially for the soprano, and I didn’t have high hopes for Eva-Maria Westbroek, the Dutch soprano who is a favorite with the current administration of the Met. I’d heard a couple of previous performances via Sirius radio, and her loose vibrato and short top made for some very uncomfortable home-listening. Between yelling back at the radio when I hear the morning news and yelling back at the radio when I hear the Met transmissions, I am starting to sound a bit frayed myself.

Westbroek was a little more together at the show I caught, and I must say that she’s a touching actress with a lot of bravado and self-assurance. Still no high notes above a Bb, and a voice that shakes, rattles, and rolls. But she and Kaufmann had a nice rapport onstage—they’d done the opera together before, and their scenes played convincingly on a theatrical level. And Westbroek got to the double-bar in spite of all odds. She is, for better or for worse, quite loud.

But I longed to hear someone who could really sing the role of Minnie. It’s rangy, declamatory, and merciless. Few sopranos can really handle it. One of the best was the young Carol Neblett, who recorded the opera in 1977. In the late 70s she was at her peak, with all the stamina and punch and gleam that this part requires. Puccini’s Turandot may be a demanding piece of singing, but the whole role lasts about eighteen minutes. Minnie must be at least three times as long, and there is no let-up. I never heard Neblett sing it live, alas. I did play for her a few times—work sessions for Flying Dutchman and Manon Lescaut. She was on the downward slide by then, and not especially warm to me. But I remembered her fondly from her days at City Opera—an electrifying performance in Mefistofele and a sexy Ariadne.

Carol died last year. Have a listen to her Act I aria from “Fanciulla del West,” in which Minnie recalls how her parents loved one another. At the end is one of the hardest high Cs in all of opera, and she nails it.

Oh—how was Kaufmann? Fine, I guess. More tomorrow.

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.

Puccini: Chi il bel sogno di Doretta

It is amazing what you can find on the internet. Trawling YouTube for this week’s videos, I nonchalantly typed “Blier Fleming” into its search engine. There were a few clips I already knew about, but also something I had not seen before: a performance of the Rondine aria “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta.” No pianist was listed, but it came from a concert in Barcelona’s Palau de la Música in 1999. Hmm, wasn’t that when I was in Spain with Renée, accompanied by my brother Malcolm and my newish boyfriend (now husband) Jim?

I listened to the performance and knew it had to be me: the balance of the hands, the very breezy intro (this was the sixth encore, no time to dawdle), the places where I tend to use a little more bass to swell the volume, the tricky, almost-perfect co-ordination under the endlessly spun-out high notes, even the place I often have a teensy screw-up—yep, Steve at the 88s. The frame is focused on Renée for the entire aria, but when she beckons the pianist to come to her for a bow…there I am. With a goatee. (Yep, 1999.) I would never have found the video except one of the listener comments: “Isn’t that Steven Blier at the piano?”

Renée Fleming had a soft spot for me. She first heard me play at Matthew Epstein’s 50th birthday bash at Weill Hall, where she also sang the Rondine aria (partnered by my colleague Martin Katz). She told me afterwards, “There’s something about the way you make music that I really like. I get your phrasing, I love the sound you make.” I went on to partner Renée in a number of concerts. We didn’t rehearse much—a couple of run-throughs per program was about it. I didn’t find it hard to get on her wavelength, though I often had the feeling I was in a very high-class jam session, responding spontaneously to Renée’s lead. That happens to be one of the ways I most enjoy playing, especially with someone as deeply musical as this artist. I don’t like overanalyzing music—it only makes my arms feel crunchy and stiff. She also cured me of a bad habit: playing the melody line while accompanying popular songs. Taking away that crutch I found new and better things to do with my right hand when improvising in Gershwin and Ellington. I’ll always be grateful for the years I had with Renée. I never got to make a CD with her, but I did get to Carnegie Hall, Symphony Hall in Chicago, the Musikhaus in Vienna, and La Scala in her company. She trusted me onstage, and that was a blessing.

I am especially moved by the end of the video, where I stand up and join Renée for a bow. There are very few films of me walking, and this one brought tears to my eyes. I was just beginning to notice difficulties getting around on my feet in 1999—mainly fatigue, and a lazy right foot that gave me an eccentric gait. But to see myself walk center stage, kiss Renée on the cheek, and bow to the public…wow. I swear I’ll do it again before I shuffle off this mortal coil. The research is moving quickly and the cure for FSH Muscular Dystrophy is certainly on the way. (A pink pill—it must be pink.)

Watch Renée Fleming and Steven Blier performance of  “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta”

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