Monthly Archives: November 2015
“This is where all the stars bow down.” I take this verse of Ted Hughes out of context but state with no compunction: there can scarcely be any denying that Bellini’s Norma is not only his greatest opera but the supreme achievement of the whole bel canto school. But is there any point in declaring something “the greatest”? Does it matter that one composer or tennis player or historian or poet surpasses everyone else in the field, especially in the arts, where great masterpieces tend to flow like wine? Perhaps not, but there will always be a tendency to find particular excellence even in the midst of abundance.
Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini turned out a profusion of great operas, many of them worthy of the highest praise. Of this notable triumvirate, Bellini is responsible for the smallest number because, sadly, he died so young. Of others in the same category, such as Mozart and Schubert, it is frequently asked, suppose they had lived longer: would they have given us even more masterworks? In the present case, it is hard to imagine that Bellini could have written anything superior to Norma. I Puritani, his last opera, has much going for it, but Norma remains the apogee of his career.
The opera has a twofold focus, one political, the other personal, and the protagonist is the center of both. Norma, the Druid high priestess, is the leader of her people in their fierce determination to throw off the yoke of the Roman invader. At the same time, she is imprisoned in her affair with the Roman pro-consul (governor) Pollione, whose two children she has borne contrary to her vow of virginity. These two aspects of her life, public and personal, are immediately revealed in her entrance aria “Casta diva”—she refuses to give the order for open revolt against the Romans, and then muses interiorly on her inability to deny her love for the man who will ultimately destroy them both.
This pattern of conflict will persist throughout the opera, with all the inner and outer struggles that afflict the persons of the drama. In every case, the conflict will be resolved by movement from unbending harshness to selfless generosity. The tragic finale will change Norma, Pollione and Oroveso beyond their personal and political limitations.
Beginning with Norma’s entrance, we can sense the primal psychological impulse of the story. The virgin high priestess is a character of powerful yet opposing interior forces; the central focus of the opera is Norma’s struggle to bring a meaningful resolution to the emotional storms that beset her. As high priestess she must tame the raging bloodlust of her people as they thirst for revenge against the Roman occupiers; as a woman she must contend with a similar battle that arises when she must confront a rival for Pollione’s love, the younger priestess Adalgisa.
The classical definition of tragedy points to a noble character who is undone by one principal character flaw. From her first entrance, Norma reveals both these traits. She is a commanding figure, imperiously directing the course of events, steely in determination, totally self-possessed as a ruler. And yet she must confront her inability to extricate herself from the pull of a passionate attachment. Throughout the opera we will see these two opposing forces raging within her until the final downfall of both Norma and her lover. As the title page of the score declares, this is truly a tragedia lirica.
The principal male characters have their own importance and are key movers of events but as personalities they do not change until the final scene. Pollione the seducer and Oroveso, Norma’s father, provide the occasion for the action but the psychological stimulus for it comes from the inner resources of the two women. Their emotional turmoil and its resolution impel the drama with irresistible force through music of unparalleled beauty.
When we open the score to the list of characters its most notable feature is the vocal assignment of the two women: both are listed as sopranos. We think of Adalgisa as a mezzo-soprano but, before the 20th century, composers were less stringent about the range of women’s voices. All of Verdi’s sopranos sang what we think of as coloratura music as a matter of course. Wagner’s writing for Isolde and Brangäne, and Elsa and Ortrud are in the same range. Adalgisa sings both the same notes as Norma or harmonizes with her, but the singer must always lighten her voice to indicate her youth relative to the older woman.
Of the profusion of great musical moments in the opera three stand out, not only in themselves, but as key components of the musico-dramatic whole. The first is Norma’s entrance aria, “Casta diva.” The conventional structure here—recitative, aria, cabaletta—serves as a reminder that the composer’s genius is not constrained by custom: he uses it to further his own aims. In this case the recitative is actually a small scena in its own right. Norma engages in dialogue with Oroveso and the chorus. They argue for immediate military action and she tamps down their ardor.
Watch an epic battle of Man vs. Whale, Moby-Dick Edition, above
Get a sneak peek of Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick above
Moby-Dick sets sail for one last time today, wowing audiences with masterful staging. In case you’ve missed the Moby-Dick love these past few weeks, check out a few of the below articles and see why Moby-Dick is a classic American opera everyone should experience.
Watch the best of Moby-Dick above
Watch the Moby-Dick set come to life above
Moby-Dick sets sail for one last time today, wowing audiences with masterful staging. In case you’ve missed the Moby-Dick love these past few weeks, we’ve collected a bunch of articles and videos for you to check out and see why Moby-Dick is a classic American opera everyone should experience.
Get To Know Moby-Dick
In this edition of questions, learn more about Jay Hunter Morris, the man behind Captain Ahab.
Musa Ngqungwana’s life has always been filled with music. Growing up in Port Elizabeth and later Cape Town, Ngqungwana’s culture was infused with music. There were songs sung at births, weddings, celebrations, songs sung at death, and even gender specific songs sung perhaps to a sweetheart. With the advent of Christian culture and dogma introduced by the British missionaries in early 20th Century South Africa, a huge choral movement swept through the nation and a slew of community choirs and plays opened up. By the time Ngqungwana was born, it had become customary to have community choirs and neighborhood plays. It was at middle school that a young Ngqungwana joined the choir to be close to a girl he loved at the time. While Ngqungwana says he “failed miserably” to win the girl’s affections, the choir stole his heart and he kept singing in the years to come.
Joshua Guerrero didn’t grow up dreaming of a career in opera, and his path towards opera stardom is anything but ordinary. He always loved singing. Yet, it was only after Guerrero joined a choir at the seminary where he studied theology that his opera journey began.
Throughout his career, baritone Morgan Smith has portrayed everything from traditional roles (Escamillo in Carmen at Vancouver Opera) to exciting new contemporary work (Lassiter in Craig Bohmler’s upcoming Riders of the Purple Sage at Arizona Opera).
This is the perfect opera to get the would-be reader – intimidated by the sheer size of Melville’s book – a rich, live experience of the Moby-Dick story.
Melville’s tale of obsession, the nature of good and evil, and the search for the elusive, titular, white whale is set to an evocative score by famed American composer, Jake Heggie (Dead Man Walking). When Heggie describes tackling the mammoth tale, he speaks of finally finding the music of Moby’s universe in four simple chords. These chords capture the spirit and yearning inherent in Melville’s story and resurface throughout the rest of the score, in a haunting fashion.
Recreating a ship on stage can take many forms. A ship can be represented by actors physically moving their bodies to form a boat on stage, or it can be a giant prop that the story’s action revolves around. An image of a ship can even be projected on a scrim on stage to represent what’s not physically on stage. In Robert Brill’s grand set design for Moby-Dick, the ship consumes the entire stage. The Pequod, as the whaling ship is called, can be seen from various sides depending on the act and there are multiple parts to make this ship seem very real to singers and audience members alike.
Maestro Conlon is very excited about conducting the upcoming production, Moby-Dick, opening October 31st. Check out why he loves Jake Heggie’s opera and why he thinks you should see it too.
Moby-Dick Highlights Reel
Erwin Schrott returns to LA Opera for an extraordinary concert event, Cuba Amiga. Schrott will be joined by an ensemble of outstanding classical and jazz musical friends from around the world, including special guest José Feliciano, the legendary singer and guitarist. Taking the audience on a musical journey through Latin America, Cuba Amiga delivers a thrilling international spectrum of Latin rhythms: bolero, salsa, flamenco, timba, rumba, cha-cha, samba and tango. The performance will take place at 7:30pm on December 12, 2015, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (135 North Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, 90012).
“My dream is to become a little old lady opera director.”
– Anne Bogart
Norma is arguably Vincenzo Bellini’s masterpiece. It’s a vocal fireworks of an opera, where singers utilize every tactic in their vocal range to express the deepest of emotions: love. Director Anne Bogart and designer Neil Patel understand this implicitly. Their Norma is a version that removes the frippery, “the spectacle of the mis en scene” and in turn fuels the vocal energy at the core of Bellini’s storytelling.
This is a style of theater that Bogart advocates as the Co-Artistic Director of the famed New York theater institution, SITI Company, which she founded with Japanese director Tadashi Suzuki in 1992.
In Norma, Bogart brings her minimalist vision and unique acting technique to the operatic world. It’s a medium that serves Bogart’s vision well. She believes that “the kernel at the heart of the theatrical experience is terror,” but in theater the struggle is “how do we create a moment that creates that ancient terror while also having some restraint?”
Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma is arguably the ultimate girl power opera, with a fiery and dramatic plot that’s sure to be a crowd pleaser.
Norma tells the story of Druid High Priestess Norma (Angela Meade), who loves and has two children with her greatest enemy – Pollione (Russell Thomas), the leader of an occupying Roman army. It turns out that Pollione’s affections have shifted to a younger priestess named Adalgisa (Jamie Barton).
I know what you’re thinking – what’s so girl power about that? Well, after discovering that they both love the same man, Norma and Adalgisa put their differences aside, team up, and set out to unravel their tangled situation before their Druid tribesman revolt and declare war against the Romans.
To help everyone get in an empowering mood, we’ve put together a list of our top 10 girl-power anthems for you to listen to until the opening night of Norma this Saturday. Here’s a list of 10 stellar girl power songs.
Hit Me With Your Best Shot – Pat Benatar
Respect – Aretha Franklin
Fighter – Cristina Aguilera
Girl On Fire – Alicia Keyes
I Will Survive – Gloria Gaynor
As I write this, Angela Meade, Jamie Barton, and Russell Thomas are on-stage rehearsing a scene from our upcoming production of Bellini’s Norma. It’s the end of Act I and Norma (Meade) has just discovered the affair between the man she loves, Pollione (Thomas), and Adalgisa (Barton), a younger priestess. If you think the story’s dramatic, you should hear their voices! Unbelievable voices – let’s call them vocal fireworks because of their equally explosive and yet restrained nature – are at the center of Norma. It’s compelling to witness.
You can literally feel their voices vibrate through the space, giving you goosebumps. It’s a heroic vocal energy that only opera singers possess and share with the world. While Norma is known as an opera lover’s opera, for the opera novice it showcases the beauty of the operatic voice. It reminds you that this art form is built on its power, and this cast’s voices are beyond. The combination of Meade’s soprano, Barton’s mezzo-soprano, and Thomas’ tenor voices surround you lovingly throughout this bel canto opera (learn more about bel canto here).
As I was reminded during last week’s Piano Dress Rehearsal, opera singers aren’t amplified. In other words, there are no microphones like you’d find at a rock concert. It’s these powerful voices that are blowing the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion roof off. (Oh, and it’s not an El Niño either…I checked.)
Check out this short clip of Angela Meade discussing how demanding Norma is vocally:
The Nearly Perfect Partner
Librettist Felice Romani (1788-1865) was one of the central figures in early 19th-century opera, working with the most important composers of his time, including Bellini’s greatest contemporaries, Rossini and Donizetti. (Verdi even recycled an existing libretto by Romani for his early comedy King for a Day.) Romani wrote the texts for seven of Bellini’s ten operas. After their success with Norma, however, their relationship soured when an overcommitted Romani missed deadlines for their subsequent collaboration, Beatrice di Tenda. Bellini used a different librettist for his next opera, I Puritani, but the two men began to repair their relationship through letters and intermediaries. Bellini’s tragic death at the age of 33, however, made I Puritani his final opera.
The First Two Divas
Considered two of the greatest singers of all time, Giuditta Pasta and Giulia Grisi created the leading roles of Norma and Adalgisa in the 1831 premiere of Bellini’s masterwork in Milan. Pasta was Bellini’s favorite singer, treasured for her unusual vocal colors and passionate emotional range. Pasta encouraged her younger colleague to move up to the role of Norma. When she did so, in 1835, Grisi was considered by many critics of her day to be superior to her illustrious predecessor.
Ponselle and Callas
Two American-born sopranos, Rosa Ponselle and Maria Callas, are considered by many to be the greatest Normas of the 20th century. Ponselle sang her first performances of Norma at the Metropolitan Opera in 1927, when she was an established star; Callas’s debut as Norma came two decades later, in Florence, when she was only 25 years old. Revered Italian maestro Tullio Serafin (1878-1968) was the conductor on both notable occasions. Ponselle confessed that “I had a lot of sleepless nights, worrying about how I was going to do in Norma.” Callas, who once described Ponselle as “her idol,” told a friend “I think we all know that Ponselle was the greatest singer of us all.”
Callas Feels Confident
On the eve of her 1948 role debut as Norma, a giddy Maria Callas wrote to her voice teacher Elvira de Hidalgo. “I pray that it will go well, that I’ll be in good health, because after those performances, if they go as well as we hope and dream, I’ll be the queen of opera in Italy, indeed everywhere, for the simple reason that I have reached perfection in singing, and there will not be another Norma in the whole world!” It was indeed a triumph, and Callas would perform Norma nearly 90 times, more than any other role. Still, as she told Maestro Serafin during rehearsals, “It will never be as good as it is now in my mind, unsung.”
Throughout his career, baritone Morgan Smith has portrayed everything from traditional roles (Escamillo in Carmen at Vancouver Opera) to exciting new contemporary work (Lassiter in Craig Bohmler’s upcoming Riders of the Purple Sage at Arizona Opera). In 2010, Smith originated the role of Starbuck in Heggie’s wildly popular Moby-Dick at Dallas Opera. He has subsequently portrayed Starbuck at San Diego Opera, San Francisco Opera, and is currently taking on the role here in Los Angeles.
Starbuck is an interesting beast to tackle. According to Smith, throughout the opera, Starbuck seems to be the only character within Captain Ahab’s close circle with “a deep, gut feeling that something’s amiss.” This does not prevent the character from sinking into some of the madness that grips Ahab. This makes it even more interesting for Smith to portray Starbuck, because he can really get into the character’s levels. At first, Starbuck is this strong, family man, whose morality is heavily tested to the point where he considers murdering Ahab to spare his men from a whale of a fate. “We see Starbuck pulled away from the person he wants to be, pulled away from his identity,” says Smith.
This role hits close to home for Smith. Starbuck often sings about his wife Mary and his son waiting for him at home. It’s their memory (and the notion of providing for them) that keeps Starbuck going. When Smith originated the role, Starbuck’s connection to family was already personal. All these years later, it’s even more personal as Smith is now a married father of six. He truly relishes his role as a husband and father, something he brings to the role of Starbuck.
Lucia di Lammermoor. The Elixir of Love. Norma. What’s one major thing these masterpiece operas have in common? They are all part of the “bel canto” tradition of early 19th-century Italian opera. “Bel canto” directly translates into “beautiful singing,” but the movement is so much more than the beautiful arias that define it.
The titans of bel canto – Vincenzo Bellini, Gaetano Donizetti and Gioachino Rossini – composed music that requires performers to have a number of vocal skills at their command: full, rich and even vocal tone; smooth, fluid musical phrasing; and tremendous vocal agility (the ability to sing a lot of fast-moving notes in a single phrase). These abilities come more naturally to some singers than to others, but even for those gifted singers who were born for bel canto, it still takes a lot of hard work in the rehearsal room to make it sound effortless. The words we use to describe bel canto may sound like gibberish if you don’t study voice, but I can promise you that the difference is quite clear. Check out Maria Callas performing “Casta diva” from Norma below and then contrast it with a non-bel canto piece: Birgit Nilsson singing “Allein, weh ganz, allein” (an early 20th-century German aria with vastly different vocal challenges) from Richard Strauss’s Elektra.
Still hungry for more information on bel canto? We’ve collected some great reference material to give you a taste of the bel canto movement below, including our top 5 bel canto operas to know.
Bel Canto: Audiences Love It, but What Is It? – via The New York Times
New York Times Chief Music Critic Anthony Tommasini discusses the history of the bel canto we know and love.
Talk Like an Opera Geek: Savoring The Bel Canto Sound – via NPR Music
It’s easy for opera fans to toss around the term “bel canto.” It’s much harder to actually define it. Literally, bel canto means “beautiful singing” in Italian, but it’s so open-ended that it’s come to mean anything from the lyrical trend in Roman cantatas from the 1640s to any particularly lovely snippet of vocalizing from any era. And then there’s the inverse of bel canto — “can belto” — a handy put-down to be flung at any singer who just stands and barks.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock this past year, you’ve probably heard that the great Ron Howard is releasing his next film, In the Heart of the Sea, on December 11. You probably also know that it stars Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy, and Brendan Gleeson, and that it’s based on a true story of a whaling ship terrorized by a giant sperm whale in 1820. But, did you know that this story inspired Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick?
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One of the most celebrated artists of her generation, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton has burst into the international spotlight after a string of successes. She makes her LA Opera debut as Adalgisa, a role she has previously performed at the Metropolitan Opera (opposite the Norma of Angela Meade) and at San Francisco Opera (with Russell Thomas as Pollione). Here’s our Jamie Barton edition of questions.
You have won some huge awards and were named the 2013 Cardiff Singer of the World. Is it possible to say what that experience did for your career?
The Cardiff has completely changed my life! I talked to the BBC about it in June.
As the Richard Seaver Music Director at LA Opera, James Conlon has been a driving force within the company since his arrival in the fall of 2006. His wealth of musical expertise and passion has led him to successfully conduct a plethora of productions, including Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick. We spoke with Conlon about Moby-Dick and why the production has what the Los Angeles Times deems “staying power.”
What about Jake Heggie’s score drove you to want to conduct Moby-Dick?
It is very important that we continue to present operas by contemporary American composers here at LA Opera. It was in that spirit this already highly successful opera was chosen. I threw myself into it as is my custom and have found the effort very rewarding.
How is it different conducting a contemporary versus a traditional operatic score?
The only thing that is different is the musical content. The preparation, the rehearsing, the reflection, as well as the physical, emotional, and intellectual engagement is the same for all music, regardless of the genre, the period in which the work was written, and the culture out of which it was born.
What do you think makes Heggie and Sheer’s adaptation so powerful?
Both are masters of their craft and they have succeeded in an impossible task, which was to select out from this massive novel the necessary parts to create a coherent, dramatic musical entity.
Have you ever listened to an opera recording and longed to perform it? Have you ever watched a production at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and longed to act? LA Opera wants to make those dreams come true. We are working with the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels to produce a community opera production of The Festival Play of Daniel, conducted by James Conlon, LA Opera’s Richard Seaver Music Director. The Festival Play of Daniel is an inspiring medieval musical drama, a retelling of the beloved Old Testament story of Daniel in the lion’s den.
Imagine that we lived during the time of Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, Wagner, and the other great composers of the classical repertoire and we could hear them share their thoughts and feelings during the final rehearsals of their operas before opening night. Thanks to today’s technology, we have the opportunity to hear composers, directors, artists and production team members share their thoughts about new operas being created right now.
I am a volunteer Community Educator for LA Opera, traveling through Southern California talking opera to civic and social organizations, philanthropic groups, and schools. One of the best parts of volunteering is that we get to do our own research and write our own talks about Opera. For the company’s current production, Moby-Dick, I thoroughly enjoyed learning not only about Melville’s classic (did you know that American artist Rockwell Kent designed cover images for the 1930 edition of the novel?), but also learning more about Jake Heggie’s adaptation. Heggie is a young contemporary American composer who has created a great new opera based on the book that has been praised as “the great American novel”—no simple task. He has given many interviews describing his approach to presenting the story in operatic form, and many are available on-line. In Heggie’s interviews, he explains the choices he made in composing music for the various parts of the story, the arc of the music from the start of the first act to the dramatic conclusion of the opera, the music he chose to create for each of the main characters, and other insights into the work.
Many opera lovers today approach contemporary opera with trepidation, preferring the familiar stories and music from operas they have been exposed to for years. The resources now available on the internet can help make contemporary opera more approachable, by providing insight into new operas by the composers, directors, and performers into the music. LA Opera’s current production of Heggie’s Moby-Dick offers you a chance to see a great production of an epic American opera, and the internet can provide you with a wealth of information you can review before you head to the opera house to enhance your experience.
“Casta diva” from Bellini’s Norma is one of the most recognizable soprano arias, found in pop culture from many soundtrack appearances (Mildred Pierce, anyone?) and legendary renditions by the likes of Maria Callas (see below), Joan Sutherland, and Beverly Sills. Norma takes place on a Druid temple mountaintop during the Roman occupation of Gaul. It follows the heartbreak of Druid priestess Norma, who unbeknownst to her followers, fell in love and has two children with Pollione, the leader of the Roman forces. The Druids call for her to declare war on the Romans. Yet, Norma does not want to destroy the man she loves. During “Casta diva,” she prays to the Goddess for peace.
Moby-Dick is an epic production with some pretty impressive numbers to back it. The Moby-Dick set weighs approximately 95,000 pounds. This number includes the masts, rope, sails and cyc (what’s a cyc, you may ask, find out here) – all of which come together on the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage to form the Pequod. The Pequod’s masts on stage are 36 feet tall, towering over the opera stage, making the ship come to life (click here to learn more about the anatomy of the Pequod).
Everyone knows the Pequod wouldn’t be complete without 1 fiery cauldron to render whale blubber. Speaking of whale blubber, there are 85 pounds of fabricated whale blubber used in the production of Moby-Dick. There’s no whale blubber without harpoons and other weapons the crew aboard the Pequod use to hunt.