Category Archives: Opera Betty

Opera Betty: La Traviata

 

La Traviata, as it turns out, means “The Lost One.” This is news to me as I always thought it was a derivation of the verb travailler and had something to do with a working girl. Which would make sense since, as we have previously discussed, a courtesan is a high class working girl.

There’s heaps to like about La Traviata. Operas with courtesans always have great costumes and fancy sets and this one is no exception. Also, someone dies in the end and I do love an opera where someone dies.

The people you need to concern yourself with here are:

  • Violetta – the title character
  • Alfredo Germont – the guy who falls in love with her and whisks her out of courtesanness, kind of like in that Police song or Pretty Woman, if you will
  • Flora – Violetta’s friend
  • Annina – Violetta’s maid
  • Giorgio Germont – Alfredo’s father, (they just call him Germont)
  • Baron Douphol – Violetta’s escort before Alfredo came along

The opera starts with a prelude that is, like many preludes, a clip show of what’s to come – specifically, the love theme and the somebody’s-going-to-die theme. The word on the street is that the prelude is the last bit to be written. Composers are reported to knock them out just as the orchestra is tuning up, wondering where their music is. They can do this because preludes are an assemblage of the Big Smash Hits they’ve already written in the opera. So. The sad violins are the dying theme and the happy violins are the love theme. Moving on.

Act I

A party at Violetta’s house. At this party she’s introduced to Alfredo, who has been charmingly stalking her for the last year. She had been sick (still is – it’s consumption and did I already say she dies at the end? Spoiler alert), and he’s come every day to check on her. He arrives to the chagrin of Baron Douphol who is Violetta’s escort. The baron has not checked on her every day because, well, he’s not supposed to be likeable. After a bit of chit-chat (which in operaese is called “recitative“), Alfredo sings a drinking song. Who doesn’t like a good drinking song?

Alfredo tells Violetta he loves her. She tells him not to bother. They go on like this for quite some time. And then she tells him to go away, but to come back tomorrow. After he leaves, Violetta sings about how swell it would be to fall in love and have someone love her back. And then she decides she’s really meant for the courtesan life after all.

Alfredo is heard singing outside her window, which changes Violetta’s mind briefly, but then she’s all back to living the high life. No way no how will she leave all this for love.

Act II

She has left it all for love. Violetta and Alfredo have been living outside Paris for three months in unwedded bliss and are running out of money. Alfredo discovers this when he talks to Annina, who tells him Violetta has gone to Paris to sell her stuff and pay their bills. Alfredo is horrified and goes to Paris to get the money himself. There are no details as to how he plans to accomplish this. Maybe he learned a thing or two from Violetta?

While he is gone, Violetta comes back. And then Alfredo’s father, Germont, arrives. Germont asks Violetta to leave Alfredo because her reputation is tarnishing the family name. As long as she remains, says Germont, Alfredo’s sister cannot marry her fiance. It’s complicated. When Violetta waffles a bit, Germont throws in the zinger that when she gets old and saggy, Alfredo will probably leave her anyway. Violetta agrees and writes a letter to Alfredo. She goes to Paris and leaves Germont to deal with Alfredo.

Alfredo comes home and receives Violetta’s letter just after she leaves. He also finds a discarded invitation to a party at Flora’s house, so he storms off to Paris to find Violetta.

Violetta does indeed show up at Flora’s party, with the Baron. Alfredo arrives and proceeds to school the Baron at cards. He wins a pile of cash, enough to pay their debts. Dinner is served, but Violetta asks Alfredo to stay back so she can talk to him. She doesn’t explain what happened, just warns him that the Baron will probably try to provoke a duel. Alfredo kind of loses it a little and calls everyone back into the room. He tells them all how she sold everything and, throwing his winnings at her, declares that he’s paid her back. And then he sings to himself  “Ah si! Che feci! No sento orrore!” which is Italian for “wow, I’m a total asshat.”

Act III

Violetta is dying. She’s at her house, which is not such a party these days. She’s attended to by Annina and visited by the doctor, who has quietly told Annina she doesn’t have long to live. Violetta, I mean. Annina’s fine.

At the last possible minute, Alfredo shows up – having been told everything by his father. They sing to each other and Violetta suddenly announces that she feels better. Oh happy day! And then she dies. More sad violin music.

The end.

Radio Betty: Idomeneo et al

In March we listened to operas you can go and see, and congratulated the fabulous bass baritone, Sir Bryn Terfel, recently knighted by the Queen. Here he is in Don Giovanni – an Opera Betty reader favorite:

The Rake’s Progress

Boston Lyric opera is doing a stunning job of bringing us all up to speed on Stravisnky’s The Rake’s Progress, on stage now through March 19. Before you go to the opera you can learn all about it on their website blo.org.

 

We played a some of The Rake’s Progress on the radio, but go ahead and take some time to explore BLO’s videos. I love this one:

 

La Traviata

There are two Met Opera HD broadcasts happening between now and the next Radio Betty. The live broadcast of La Traviata was Saturday, but you can probably still catch an encore.

 

The next Live in HD broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera is Mozart’s Idomeneo on March 25th.

Idomeneo

If you like the story of Aida but wish it had a happier ending, this may be the opera for you. It’s also terrific because the story is from Greek mythology so there’s a sea monster and an unfortunate promise to Neptune.

First, the backstory: Helen has been carted off to Troy by Paris, and various Greek kings join forces to lay siege – including Idomeneo of Crete. Instead of postcards, Idomeneo sends Trojan captives home to let them know of his imminent return. One of those captives is Princess Ilia, the daughter of King Priam which I think makes her Paris’ sister but don’t quote me. The ship she was on sank because that’s what happens to ships in Greek mythology, but Ilia was rescued by Idomeneo’s son, Idamante . They fall in love.

Of course, it’s complicated. There’s the whole “your dad took me captive” part, plus, Elettra is already in love with Idamante. Elettra, who you may know as Elektra, is the one who helped her brother kill their mom in revenge for the murder of their dad, Agamemnon. Remind me sometime to go down the rabbit hole of operas involving all these people. It will be so fun.

Elettra lives in Crete now, since she was forced to flee Argos.

Ilia is falling in love with Idamante but realizes that holiday family gatherings will be a bummer since his father is a sworn enemy of her people. Idamante is holding down the fort until his dad gets home, so he frees the Trojan captives to show her they’re not so bad after all.

Meanwhile, Idomeneo is drowned in a shipwreck.

But wait! He doesn’t drown because he makes a deal with Neptune, who saves him. In return for his life, Idomeneo promises to kill the first person he lays eyes on when he gets to dry land. Unfortunately, that person is his son. Because, mythology.

Trying to figure a way out of sacrificing his son, Idomeneo sends Idamante to escort Elettra back to Argos. Elettra hopes the trip will work out for her and Idamante , except that just as they’re getting ready to leave, a storm kicks up and a sea monster appears. Idomeneo admits that it’s his fault the island is being attacked by a sea monster but refuses to sacrifice an innocent human. He tries banishing Idamante who still doesn’t understand why his dad’s being so mean.

Idamante agrees to be exiled, not having any idea why, so it is time for he and Ilia to finally admit that they are in love.

Idomeneo has to give up the name of the person he’s supposed to kill and everyone is terribly sad as they prepare the sacrifice. Idamante meanwhile kills the sea monster, but understands that a deal is a deal and is ready to be sacrificed to save Crete.

Ilia offers to take his place, which is maybe why Neptune reconsiders and, just as Idomeneo is ready to kill his son, makes a counter offer. If Idomeneo steps aside and gives the throne to his son and Ilia, they’ll be Even Steven. Everyone but Elettra rejoices. The chorus sings and they all eat cake and sea monster sushi. The end.

Opera Betty is on WOMR the second Sunday of every month at noon, Eastern time.

 

Opera Betty: Opera and Politics

Given the season, I’ve found myself exploring politically inspired themes. I had a lot of material to chose from – so many operas have been – and continue to be – inspired by political situations.

“Scalia/Ginsberg” is a new opera by Derrick Wang. According to an article in Salon, “Justices Antonin Scalia, with his devotion to the Constitution’s original meaning, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, more willing to adapt the Constitution to changing times, were ideological opposites and longtime friends with a mutual love of opera.”

I couldn’t find a recording or video for “Scalia/Ginsberg,” but for once I have an actual excuse to play something from “Nixon in China.” I think this particular selection is especially timely. “News has a kind of mystery….”

According to Tim Ashley’s opera guide in the Guardian, Jurgen Flimm’s 2004 Zurich Opera production of Beethoven’s “Fidelio” emphasizes that “the opera is not only a demand for freedom and individual dignity, but is also a reminder of the lengths to which we must sometimes go in order to achieve them.”

Following the 2008 election, Guerilla Opera came out with Curtis Hughes opera “Say it Ain’t so, Joe,” about the vice presidential debates between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin. The opera is described as a musical re-imagining of the 2008 Vice Presidential Debate, along with glimpses of other contemporaneous events and figures – with some fantastical digressions. It goes on to say that it’s not about Palin and Biden as real people, so much as about their public identities as constructed in the imaginations of the American people. It’s intended to evoke the subjective experience of watching the debate, including some emotional twists and turns and musical reflections on the nature of political speech. The libretto is adapted from public records – so the dialog will seem eerily familiar.

There was also an opera about Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, by Dan Redican. Its premiere was described as an epic failure, but it’s short, sweet, and judging from the trailer, worth the watch.

Also worth the watch is the upcoming movie of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” The opera version of “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Poul Ruders premiered at the Danish Royal Opera in 2000.

And let us not forget “Powder Her Face,” the explicit opera by Thomas Adès about the “Dirty Duchess”, Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll, whose sexual exploits were the stuff of scandal and gossip in Britain in 1963 during her divorce proceedings. I played the overture on the radio, just to be safe.

Then of course there’s Boris Godunov. Boris comes out of the gate with everything I love about Russian opera. I love the traditional melodies, the bells, the heaps of choruses and the sound of the Russian language. It’s the story of Boris Godunov, obviously, who became tsar when someone had Ivan the Terrible’s heir, Dimitry, killed as a baby. We’re not saying who.

Opera means many different things to many different people, says a New York Times review. One meaning with a long history is “opera as musically accompanied declamation,” which is how ”X (The Life and Times of Malcolm X)” by Anthony Davis struck a reviewer in its formal world premiere at the New York City Opera. X “falls into the category of message theater, and by definition its message will not appeal to all who hear it.” See what you think:

A new opera by Mohammed Fairouz opened at Washington National Opera earlier this month that may or may not be about Trump. According to a Washington Post article, in “The Dictator’s Wife” the attractive wife of an authoritarian political leader bemoans the challenges of her position.

Recordings of “The Dictator’s Wife” are not yet available, but there are about 16 pages of other videos by or featuring Fairouz. This is the rabbit hole I went down:

And then of course there’s the whole Trojan war, summed up nicely in In Les Troyens

In a show about political operas I can’t not play something from “Satyagraha,” by Philip Glass. “Satyagraha” is about Gandhi’s years in South Africa, where he developed non-violent protest, or Satyagraha. In Gandhi’s words:

“Truth (satya) implies love, and firmness (agraha) engenders and therefore serves as a synonym for force. I thus began to call the Indian movement Satyagraha, that is to say, the Force which is born of Truth and Love.”

I’m sorry you can’t see it, but the music is some of my favorite:

There has been quite a lot of talk about who will and will not be playing at the inauguration. In a tweet, Charlotte Church announced that she had declined, followed by some choice emojis. I find it funny that the only thing I have by her is the evening hymn from Hansel and Gretel. It’s lovely.

When at night I go to sleep,
Fourteen angels watch do keep,
Two my head are guarding,
Two my feet are guiding;
Two upon my right hand,
Two upon my left hand.
Two who warmly cover
Two who o’er me hover,
Two to whom ’tis given
To guide my steps to heaven.
Sleeping sofly, then it seems
Heaven enters in my dreams;
Angels hover round me,
Whisp’ring they have found me;
Two are sweetly singing,
Two are garlands bringing,
Strewing me with roses
As my soul reposes.
God will not forsake me
When dawn at last will wake me.

Opera Betty: La Bohème synopsis

La Bohème is stupidly famous because who doesn’t like an opera about garrets and poets and coughing? It is pronounced “Lah Boe-EM” and means “Bohemia.”

Rodolfo, Colline and Marcello are friends. Rodolfo is a poet, Colline a philosopher and Marcello a painter. They are a trifecta of monetary disfunction. The opera opens on Rodolfo, burning pages of his writing to keep warm. Schaunard, their musician friend, arrives saying he’s landed work. They all go out on the town with promises from Rodolfo to join them.

Mimi arrives, saying her candle has “blown out.” Rodolfo lights her candle (not a euphemism, yet) and sends her on her way but it “blows out” again and then she “drops her key”  and there’s some groping in the dark and singing and lo and behold the next thing you know they’re in love.

They leave to go join the others and Rodolfo buys her a bonnet which she will probably have to burn later to keep warm.

At the cafe, Marcello’s ex, Musetta, arrives with her sugardaddy, Alcindoro. Musetta sends Alcindoro off on some errand and they all have a splendid time and leave him with the bill.

In act 3 Mimi confides in Marcello that she wants to leave Rodolfo because he is so horribly jealous. Shortly after, Rodolfo talks about dumping Mimi because she’s so fickle and flirty and we’re all “wha…? When was she fickle and flirty? She hasn’t done anything but cough.” This is because there was an act 2.5 and we missed it. In act 2.5, the librettist wrote a scene where Musetta introduces Mimi to a Viscount and Mimi is indeed fickle and flirty. Who can blame her? She’s broke and dying and Rodolfo is kind of whiney.  The scene didn’t make the cut and no one bothered to proofread the rest of the libretto.

Rodolfo then admits that the real reason he wants to leave Mimi is that she is sick and probably dying and he is too poor to take care of her and is probably, in fact, making her sicker with his poetry. She overhears this and rushes to Rodolfo. They decide to stay together until spring or until one of them gets a paying gig, whichever comes first. Spoiler: it’s spring.

Later, the three friends are doing whatever it is they do in their garret when Musetta rushes in and tells them Mimi is dying. They all run around like chickens, trying to help, but she dies anyway.

Again with the spoilers. Sorry.

I hesitate to add that La Bohème was the basis for Jonathan Larson’s Rent.

Radio Betty: The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore

Today’s radio show on WOMR was about Gian Carlo Menotti’s madrigal fable “The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore”

In a recent conversation about opera people and how weird we are, a friend asked if I ever played Menotti on the show – who you may know from such smash hits as Amahl and the Night Visitors. I hadn’t, so I did a little homework and found this one – which would have been perfect if only he had added a kraaken.

If your gripe is that opera is too long AND you can’t understand it, then perhaps The Unicorn, the Gorgon, and the Manticore is for you. It’s in English and is remarkably easy to follow along – unlike John Adams, where you’re all “surround the plutonium core from 32 points spaced equally around its surface….” WHAAAAAT?

Because unlike John Adams’ Dr. Atomic, this opera is not about the testing of the first atomic bomb.

The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore is a madrigal fable, telling a story – in English – with musical interludes thrown in for good measure. In addition to being great pets, the unicorn, gorgon, and manticore are allegories for three stages of the poet’s life.

The opera begins with the chorus (probably the townspeople) describing the poet as an oddball who lives in a castle and doesn’t hang out with them very much. He doesn’t even go to church. For a second you think it’s a liturgical-sounding version of Bluebeard’s Castle, but then instead of luring a new wife to her doom, he takes his unicorn for a walk. The contessa then must have a unicorn, and all the other townspeople follow suit.

The next week, the poet takes his gorgon for a walk through town. In case you’ve forgotten what a gorgon is, Medusa was one. Everyone assumes he offed the unicorn and replaced it with the Gorgon so that’s what they do, too. I hope you didn’t book a trip to their town that week, what with all the Gorgons and all.

The next week he appears with a manticore instead of the gorgon, so everyone offs their gorgons and there’s a run on manticores at the shelter. If again you have forgotten what a manticore is, it has the body of a lion, the face of a man, and the tail of a dragon.

And then the man doesn’t go for a walk at all. Not with so much as a hamster. So the people storm the castle. They find the poet and all three of his housepets at the castle. Not only has he not killed them, but he is the one who is dying, surrounded by the creatures of his fancy.

Opera Betty: The Rake’s Progress

You know? things in this world are not going as planned. There are times when we here at Opera Betty read the news and shake our heads. That’s what we do when life imitates art. Life should make up some of its own material, if you ask me.

The Rake’s Progress was first performed on 9/11 (before 9/11 was 9/11), in 1951. The recording I have is of the world premier, in Venice (Italy, not Arkansas). It’s conducted by Stravinsky, so it’s completely rocking  – except it sounds like someone played the recording on a Victrola, while holding up one of those old cassette players. The cassette was then thrown out of a car window, driven over, respooled and digitally remastered.

In other words, it’s totally cool to have, but painful to listen to.

Stravinsky wrote The Rake’s Progress when he was already very successful, writing commissioned pieces for orchestras around the world. So full disclosure: no kick-backs up front. He was inspired by a series of modern moral subjects, by artist William Hogarth, and thought aw, what the heck?

William_Hogarth_-_A_Rake's_Progress

The Rake’s Progress, then, is a cautionary moral tale. Let us begin.

We have Anne Trulove and Tom Rakewell, singing in the garden of Anne’s father’s country estate. Her father has offered to help find Tom a job, but Tom would rather get rich without doing any actual work. He wishes this aloud and, poof! who should appear but Nick Shadow.

Nick tells Tom he has inherited a fortune. Tom hires Nick as a servant and the two go off to London to collect the inheritance. Note the “master” and “servant” irony, if you would, please.

In London, Nick takes Tom to a brothel, run by a madame named Mother Goose. I don’t make this stuff up, people. W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman did. To his credit, Tom resists the charms of the prostitutes, but finally succumbs to Mother Goose. I mean really, who can resist a little Mother Goose at bedtime?

Anne, sensing a disturbance in the force, goes to find him.

Meanwhile, Tom has grown bored with his stint as the prodigal son. He is rich, rich, rich, but still not happy. So he wishes he was happy and, poof again! Up pops Nick. Nick suggests Tom marry the bearded lady, Baba the Turk. Which I’m sure seemed like a good idea at the time?

Anne arrives, but is rejected by Tom. Which is a lucky break for her, I’d say.

Baba the Turk then drives Tom out of his ever-loving mind. He tosses a wig at her to get her to pipe down, which turns her into a statue. I’m sure there’s some kind of symbolism there but it’s beyond me.

With Baba quiet, Tom finally gets some sleep and dreams of a wonderful device. He wakes up and wishes it were true, because with this machine you could make bread out of stones. Get rich quick, scheme, anyone?

It’s even worse than that, because when Nick arrives on the scene to grant his wish, the machine is a fraud (you put in a rock and a loaf of bread comes out the trap door). Tom attempts to sell the machines (to eradicate world hunger, don’t you know), and goes bankrupt when he’s discovered as a humbug.

Insert parallel corporate scandal here.

All of Tom’s belongings are then auctioned off, including Baba.

It’s been a year since Tom first met Nick Shadow, and it’s time for Nick to claim Tom’s soul (what’s left of it). They play a game of cards to see who gets to keep the soul and Tom, trusting Anne’s voice, wins with the Queen of Hearts. Ahhh! Peace and happiness at last!

Except Nick condemns Tom to insanity – which I hardly think is fair. He’s committed to an asylum (the notorious Bedlam asylum, interestingly enough), where he is completely delusional and tries to convince his fellow nut hatches that he’s the Greek god Adonis. According to godchecker.com, Adonis is  the “handsome God of Desire and Manly Good Looks. Has a very high squeee! factor.”

Let’s add godchecker.com to the list of random websites I have a new crush on, shall we?

The other inmates don’t believe him, until Anne appears and sings him a lullaby. They all think she’s Venus. And then Tom dies peacefully in his sleep. That’s some singing.

But wait! In case you missed the point, all the main characters come marching out for the Epilogue, and tell us their own version of what the hell happened. Pun intended.

-curtain-

Opera Betty: Mother’s Day Edition

Since it’s Mother’s Day, I asked my very clever daughter if she could think of any operas that have mothers in them. She did not disappoint.

The first opera she came up with was Il Trovatore. The gypsy Azucena stole Manrico from his family, intending to burn him at the stake to avenge her mother, who Manrico’s family burned at the stake. She ends up raising Manrico as her own son because she messed up and accidentally threw her own son into the fire. She ends up getting Manrico killed too, but that takes longer.

The other one she thought of was Iphigenie en Tauride. It was Iphegenie’s father who sacrificed her, so we should probably play this one again in June. Iphegenie’s mother then killed the father. And then her brother killed her mother. Which is a shame because all this time Iphegenie wasn’t even dead.

Agrippina was the ultimate stage mom, maneuvering her son, Nero, into the emperorship. She succeeds, but he kills her anyway – just not in this opera.

And then there’s Medea. She helped Jason get the Golden Fleece and he in turn helped her get rejected by her family. He also fathered her children. And then he went off and married someone else, which Medea wasn’t down with. So she killed his fiancee. And then she killed her kids.

And then there’s poor Salome, who got worked by her mother Herodias. There are several versions – none of them end well. Strauss has Salome killed. Massenet has her kill herself. Either way, it’s her mom’s fault.

Speaking of incest, there’s the whole Siegmund/Sieglinde issue. Siegmund meets Sieglinde and falls in love with her. It turns out she’s his twin sister but that doesn’t stop him from asking his father, Wotan, for help in killing Sieglinde’s husband. Wotan says he’ll help but his wife will never let him hear the end of it if he helps break up the marriage. Brunhilde tries to help too, but gets sent to her room, which is surrounded by a ring of fire. Sieglinde will bare Siegmund a son in the next opera, and, to complicate things, name him Siegfried.

Then of course there’s poor Madama Butterfly who marries Pinkerton, has his child and sits around waiting for years for him to get home from work, only to realize he didn’t really marry her.

 

Let us not forget the Queen of the Night in Magic Flute. She’s a tricky bugger. And she has a very famous aria.

 

The nice mom in the mix is Suor Angelica. She’s in a convent because that’s what happens when you accidentally have a baby. One evening her aunt comes to ask her to sign away her inheritance. She’s okay with that, but what she really wants is news of her son – who was taken from her seven years ago. Her aunt breaks the news that her son died two years before.

Alone that evening, Suor Angelica has a vision, in which her son is calling to her from heaven. Being handy with plants, she makes herself a poison and drinks it, thinking they will be reunited in heaven. But as soon as she drinks it, she realizes she committed a sin by killing herself and fears she will not make it to heaven.

As she dies, she sees another vision.

We hope all you mothers don’t get food poisoning from undercooked eggs, or end up in an opera. Wear your noodle necklaces with pride. They go with everything, you know.

 

Opera Betty #64: Monsters of Grace

For the February broadcast on WOMR I was going to put together a Valentine show but ran into some trouble.

Valentine’s Day is a little rough for opera characters. Mimi, Mario, Violetta, Ernani, Carmen, Manrico, Lucia, Aida, Tristan and Isolde are all dead and most of the others are locked in their rooms writing bad poetry.

And then I thought I’d do a David Bowie tribute show, but my favorite track on Blackstar has a string of f-bombs, none of them subtle but all very catchy. So I thought about an opera that made me think of David Bowie and came up with Monsters of Grace, by Philip Glass.

Now you’re probably thinking I picked Monsters of Grace as a tribute to David Bowie because of Scary Monsters – which is one of my favorites because obviously – but you’d only be partially right. I picked Monsters of Grace because it’s based on the poetry of Rumi, the sufi mystic.

Our new favorite game here is “Bowie or Rumi” – in which you guess who penned the lines (if they even had pens in 13th century Persia). Here are some examples:

Stop the words now.
Open the window in the centre of your chest,
and let the spirits fly in and out.

Or

Wish, and the storm will fade away
Wish again, and you will stand before me while the sky will paint an overture
And trees will play the rhythm of my dream

Are they Bowie, or Rumi?

The New York Times called Monsters of Grace “a work of mysterious possibilities.”

Glass responded to Rumi’s poems which are meditations on the range of human experience: Inspiration for art, companionship and compassion, ruminations on earthly pleasures, questions of heaven, the secrets of life, joy, mortality, recognition of the self and the nature of God.

Sounds like opera.

Music Critic Joshua Kosman writes of Glass: “The deliberate simplicity of his harmonic and rhythmic palette are old news by now, but what’s remarkable is how much depth and emotional force he still manages to wring out of those restricted resources. It’s not just the teasing elusiveness of lines like “Don’t go back to sleep!” that make the music seem as if it’s emerging from a dream state; it’s the hypnotic repetitions of familiar harmonies in unfamiliar guises, which slip right past the listener’s rational apparatus.”

Monsters of Grace is a multimedia chamber opera in 13 short acts directed by Robert Wilson, with music by Philip Glass and libretto from the works of Rumi. The title came from a typo when Wilson used a line from Hamlet: “Angels and ministers of grace defend us!” Auto-correct does it again.

The texts of Monsters of Grace is translated from the Persian by Coleman Barks with John Moyne and AJ Arberry, and the recording was released for Rumi’s 800th birthday.

 

Because this is radio we mostly talk about the music and libretto, but “Monsters of Grace,” is billed as “A Digital Opera in Three Dimensions.” The opera is made up of 13 unconnected segments, each of which combines computer-generated 3-D visuals. Yes, if you go you get to wear 3d glasses. The music is performed by a seven piece ensemble and four singers.

MoG-bicycleCritic Joshua Kosman goes on to say of the multi media aspect of the performance “Wilson’s most vibrant sequences — including a suburban landscape with a small boy bicycling toward the audience out of the twilight gloom, or a family perched atop an aquatic A-frame house that floats from the tropics to the arctic in the space of three minutes — grip the imagination.

The 3-D effects are used sparingly, but always to splendid effect. The tropical rain forest is home to a large and frighteningly vivid dragonfly, and hands occasionally reach directly into the audience. In the piece’s most exquisite moment, a small songbird flies slowly and gracefully across the center of the auditorium.”

Seterogram-MoGPerhaps the best summation of the piece comes during “Like This,” when the singers intone, “If anyone wonders how Jesus raised the dead, don’t try to explain the miracle. Kiss me on the lips — like this.”

In the liner notes of Monsters of Grace, Philip Glass says “Over the last three years, Bob Wilson and I have been meeting to work on a new theater piece, Monsters of Grace. Since Einstein on the Beach in 76, we have come together on several occasions to make new work, but unlike those projects, with this present work, we have had a real opportunity to sit together and engage in a new world of ideas. Of course image, music and structure are at the root of what we are thinking. We are, moreover, addressing a challenge of a new technology and it’s impact of a developing artistic view. It is fair to say that as an on going process, it is still fluid, elusive, and for us, full of surprise.”— Philip Glass, 1997

 

 

While I would love to watch the chamber opera in all its 3D digital splendor, it’s perhaps just as well that this is radio and we only get to listen to Monsters of Grace. In the New York Times, Director and Designer Robert Wilson is quoted as saying “I hated that!” and “It was one of the most embarrassing things in my life.”

It’s safe to say Monsters of Grace is not Einstein on the Beach.

When Monsters of Grace was first produced, in 1998, digital animation wasn’t where it is now. According to the liner notes, this seems to have been the project’s main flaw. It took twenty animators almost a full year to complete the footage based on Robert Wilson’s original intent. Wilson, who has been described as liking to maintain great control over his projects and to change details at the last minute, gradually grew frustrated upon seeing how much time was required to change the animations, and ended up distancing himself from the animators. This led to a final product that, from his standpoint, was unpolished. In an interview with the New York Times, he remarked, “This is like being a dog with a litter of puppies that went away six weeks later. . . . Here I was working with people who didn’t know my work, in a medium I didn’t know.”

I can’t help but wonder what would happen if Wilson had today’s technology to realize his designs.


Bowie or Rumi:
1
Stop the words now.
Open the window in the centre of your chest,
and let the spirits fly in and out.

2
Wish, and the storm will fade away
Wish again, and you will stand before me while the sky will paint an overture
And trees will play the rhythm of my dream

3
Soul love – the priest that tastes the word and
Told of love – and how my God on high is
All love – though reaching up my loneliness
evolves
By the blindness that surrounds him

4
My prayer flies
like a word on a wing
Does my prayer fit in
with your scheme of things?

5
Vision, see nothing I don’t see.
Language, say nothing.
The way the night knows itself with the moon,
be that with me. Be the rose
nearest to the thorn that I am.

6
There’s such a sad love
Deep in your eyes.
A kind of pale jewel
Open and closed
Within your eyes.
I’ll place the sky
Within your eyes.

7
Where do we go to now?
There’s nothing in our eyes
As lonely as a moon
Misty and far away

8
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the door sill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.

 

Opera Betty

operabetty-harbor2015Opera Betty  began when the newspaper I wrote an opera column for went belly-up.The demise of the paper and my column are believed unconnected. Recently, the demised paper’s managing editor was busted with $21k in drugs believed for distribution – but that’s nothing compared to what goes down in opera.

The column was geared toward people who read more Spin than Opera News – a fantastically underserved demographic, if you ask me. But no one did ask me, so I started the Opera Betty website.

Radio Betty is the radio version, airing on WOMR the second Sunday of every month at noon, eastern time. I frequently include composers who aren’t dead yet, and talk about the older operas in ways that don’t make you wish you were dead.

I did an interview on Modern-Day Mozartian if you’re curious about what possessed me to do all this.

Opera Betty on Facebook | Opera Betty on Twitter | opera.betty@gmail.com

Opera Betty: The Metropolitan Opera, Live in HD – 2012/13 season overview

People are always asking me which of the upcoming Met Opera HD broadcasts they should go to, and what they’re all about. So I thought it would be helpful to list the upcoming operas with extraordinarily helpful information about each.

Check the Met’s website before setting your heart on anything. Opera’s fickle.

Live in HD – The Metropolitan Opera’s 2012/13 Season:

Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore–New Production
October 13, 2012
Nemorino buys a potion from a quack doctor, thinking that when he drinks it he will be able to talk to Adina and she will fall in love with him. He ends up drunk, but lucky for him, he’s adorable when drunk. It all works out. The end.

Verdi’s Otello
October 27, 2012
In which Otello seems smart but gets played like a … like a… like a tenor in a Shakespearean opera by Verdi. (You don’t get more played than that.)

Adès’s The Tempest—Met Premiere
November 10, 2012
Simon Keenlyside is Prospero and is dreamy. The end. (Okay yes, it is also directed by Robert LePage, who did the Met’s new Ring cycle. Let’s face it, if Robert LePage directed The True Story of Mary and Her Little Lamb, I’d go see it.)

Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito
December 1, 2012
In which Titus’ fiancee and his friend plot to kill him. Titus, in turn, clemenzas them. It’s gripping.

Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera—New Production
December 8, 2012
If you laugh off a fortune-teller’s prophesy of your own doom, stay away from masked balls. Especially if you find yourself in an opera.

Verdi’s Aida
December 15, 2012
Princess wars! An Ethiopian princess and an Egyptian princess duke it out over our hero Radamès. One of them wins – if by “wins” you mean “dies.”

Berlioz’s Les Troyens
January 5, 2013
With approximately 52k square feet of stage (if you count the side and rear stages), the Met could probably stage the actual Trojan War. This is close.

Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda—Met Premiere
January 19, 2013
Mary Queen of Scots is doomed, doomed, doomed, but she gets to spend her final hours in an opera directed by David McVicar so at least she’ll go out in style.

Verdi’s Rigoletto– New Production
February 16, 2013
It’s like the regular Rigoletto, but set in Las Vegas circa 1960.

Wagner’s Parsifal–New Production
March 2, 2013
It wouldn’t be a Wagnerian opera without Knights of the Holy Grail, a biblical spear, a bunch of curses, a magical villain, some prophesies and a dashing hero.

Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini
March 16, 2013, 12 pm ET
It’s inspired by Dante’s Inferno, which is funny since most of my friends equate opera with one of the rings of hell.

Handel’s Giulio Cesare—New Production
April 27, 2013
Handel has a thing for casting the roles of people like Julius Caesar and Nero as countertenors. Hilarious. Have you ever heard a countertenor? You’ll fall off your chair the first time he opens his mouth.

New Operas – Radio Betty Episode 17

In Episode 17 we talked about the abundance of new operas, including Guerilla Opera’s world premiere of “Loose, Wet, Perforated.” I went to see “Heart of a Dog” last winter and can affirm that you will never see anything like a Guerilla Opera production. For ticket info, go to guerillaopera.com.

We also talked about Kickstarter and all the operas in varying states of production. If you haven’t been to kickstarter.com yet, set aside a few days with no distractions and plenty of food and water. The projects people have come up with are unbelievable. I searched for “opera” and found 134 projects. Some were already funded and some had not met their goal (thankfully, in a few cases). Many are still collecting donations, including “Beautiful Creatures,” the first opera that caught my eye. According to the Kickstarter overview it “explores the loss of ideals and how we reconcile our best hopes with sobering realities.”

I was pulled in by the music during the video introduction, and then realized I recognized one of the faces: playwright Dominic Orlando. I never seem to discover someone is a librettist until long after I’ve spent a week hanging out down the hall from him. I worked on the publicity for Dominic’s play Danny Casolaro Died for You, which premiered last fall (what do you mean you haven’t heard of it?? You have now). I love his storytelling and pretty much think he’s the cat’s pajamas. In fact, if I didn’t like opera, this might push me over the edge.

The synopsis: Eileen, an inveterate executive of an environmental organization, struggles to find the reins of her mission in the green movement with all its recent changes. Her fantasies and anxieties play out during an afterparty at a green conference where the competing strategies and motivations of 3 other characters within the movement (a celebrity, an eco-terrorist, a green-washed corporate) threaten to take them all down.

After the guests have arrived Cori (the terrorist) tells us that she’s wearing a bomb, and intends to kill the tabloid beauty (Hank) to demonstrate the destruction of a “beautiful creature” she believes the world won’t ignore. Stan and Eileen get into a row about their old relationship: he accuses her of becoming a shameless self-promoter posing as a green activist. She chastizes his corporate greenwash activities for clean coal. Cori confronts Hank to see if he might have any real integrity about the environment, but remains unconvinced by his response. International activists stroke Hank’s ego in order to leverage his celebrity, but Stan makes an ugly scene, telling them he’s just an actor posing as a do-gooder. Cori finally gets herself psyched up to do the deed even while she’s wishing someone might stop her. The others struggle in a build-up to a tense moment where the bomb might go off.

Stage|Time Collaborative has until October 2 to reach their goal. Donate here if you can:BEAUTIFUL CREATURES.

From there we gave an overview/tutorial on The Rake’s Progress. It seemed appropriate.

And for the Ripped from the Headlines portion of our program, we talked about Eva-Maria Westbroek and her roles as Anna Nicole and Sieglinde. Interestingly, if you do a google search for images of Eva-Maria, there are about 80 billion of her as Anna Nicole and 12 as Sieglinde.

Read the article in The Independent.

In addition to segments of the operas, we played “Boycott Immorality” from Chocolat and “Anna Nicole Smith’s Baby” by Spring Forth. We tried to fit in Bananarama’s “Venus” at the end of The Rake’s Progress, but it was too jarring a transition even for us.

Next time.

Elo, experienced

We don’t do ballet reviews here at Opera Betty because that would make us ballet bettys, which we’re not. However, we can’t get Boston Ballet’s Elo Experience* out of our heads.

Boston Ballet this season has been reminding me of the Red Sox the year they broke the curse and won the World Series. For those of you unfamiliar with the Red Sox Curse, in 1920 the Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees. As he left town, Babe Ruth said “next season you will prick your finger on a spindle and DIE!” but the Red Sox’ fairy god mother had not yet given the Red Sox their birthday wish and said “you will not die, but you’ll lose for almost a hundred years and perhaps wish you were dead.”

In 2004, they won the World Series and there was much rejoicing.

That season, they were especially fun to watch because they a) didn’t lose and b) were just plain fun to watch. They spoke their own language – like “cowboy up” and “Manny being Manny.” They had goofy little inside jokes and pranks.

I don’t know if Boston Ballet is prone to inside jokes and pranks, but I do think they speak their own language. Characteristic turns of phrase and figures of speech that identify each dancer are the language of a company. This is what Jorma Elo translated into dance in Elo Experience.

Which doesn’t mean I understood what they were saying. Some of these pieces are like poetry – where you read it and feel it but can’t explain what it’s about. There were times when I felt like I was dreaming. There were moments of deja vu where I struggled between recalling previous Elo choreography and wondering if he had tapped into something archetypal. If it’s possible for something visual to hit emotional pressure points, Elo does it.

While the story ballets are classic favorites and heaps of fun to watch, the company is brilliant with more lyrical, contemporary choreography. They dance in silence with sharp stops and undulating gestures. They are subtle and ephemeral. They are technically the tightest and most inspired I’ve seen in years.

At opening night of Elo Experience, there were two things we hadn’t seen before.

1) With intermission house lights still on and no warning, the dancers appeared on stage, nonchalant as anything. It was a surreal peek at the underpinnings.

2) After the final bows were taken we heard a cheer behind the curtain – presumably the company applauding their resident choreographer.

And rightly so. He speaks their language.

*not the band