Sunday, September 27, 2015

Rant, Followed by Public Service Announcement

I can feel a rant coming on about terrible music world web sites, having just been horrified by the redesigned Met and NY Phil web sites. The Met redesign....I mean, what I can say? My tweet says it all: It went from being homely but functional to being pretty but useless.

Homely but function is always preferable, because selling tickets is more important than looking good. Always make it easy for people to give you money, as my web site basics page says.

And also: I must report that the Met's IT staff (or whoever does the web design; could be an outside design company) neglected to check how it looks and works on mobile phones. I know this because I tried the site on my phone and it just didn't work. I didn't get a mobile-adapted site, and if they think they have "responsive design," which adapts automatically to your device, they are just wrong. I saw a lot of code instead of the web site, and, well, that is not want you want your customers to see. Removing the ? from the end of the initial URL did help, but after that? Completely useless. I could not find the fucking calendar!

Note: I am a user of the most popular mobile operating system in the world. There are about a billion Android phones out there. It's better if Android users can view your web site correctly! I mean, it can't be possible that they checked this, but only on iOS? No.

And also: board members, staff, and critics should be required to use the web site to buy tickets at least annually so that they experience exactly the same pain that audience members, aka your customers, experience. I am looking at you and you and you and you and you, big-city reviewers, who can call the press department and bypass this crap. You are advocates for the audience, and calling out terrible orchestra and opera web sites is one concrete and important way to advocate for the audience.

I am not looking at myself because I buy most of my own tickets, so I do go through the pain. And then I complain about it here and everywhere else I can, sometimes in letters to musical organizations.

And also: the Tessitura web site lists the NYPhil as a customer. Man, they have the ugliest Tessitura display I have ever seen. Pony up for something better and more functional, guys. What you have looks like Brown Paper Tickets, a ticketing provider used by many smaller organizations (that is, the ones who can't afford Tessitura). It works just fine, but using a Tessitura display of that type is...really very strange for the country's oldest symphony orchestra.

Oh, gosh, I went ahead and ranted.

So, public service announcement. If you hate the search function on an organization's web site, use Google instead. There is search help, believe it or not. You have to search for it, because somehow Google is allergic to context-senstive help, that is, having a link to that help center on the search page. That would make sense, right? And I should know.

Anyway, here's the syntax for using Google to search a specific web site:

site:web_site_URL "your_search_term"

For example, if you want to find the sole performance Maurizio Pollini is giving at the NY Philharmonic, type this into the Google search box and hit return: "maurizio pollini"

If you want to see Semyon Bychkov's concerts, use this: Bychkov

For the BSO's Elektra programs at Carnegie: Elektra

Or substitute Goerke or Nelsons or "Boston Symphony" for that last term.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Demon Barber Media Roundup

Let's see what everyone else thought. I will include amusing headlines playing off the plot.
  • Joshua Kosman, Chron. "S.F. Opera delivers a 'Sweeney Todd' that's a cut above." Note the less-amusing URL when you click through.
  • Greg Freed, Parterre Box. "Leave It to Cleaver."
  • Steven Winn, SFCV. "SF Opera Attends to Sweeney Todd with a Vengeance."
  • Opera Tattle, overwhelmed by the firehose of words, reports that meat pies were served in the press room. Did anyone on the SFO staff lose a cat recently?
  • SF Mike, SF Civic Center
  • Lisa Hirsch, here.
Joshua's review reminds me that I thought the first act sagged at the beginning, then picked up in whatever the last number or two were ("A Little Priest," most likely.)

Attend the Tale

Baritone Brian Mulligan in the title role of Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." 
©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Before I get to talking about what I saw and heard last Friday in the War Memorial Opera House, I need to review some history.
  • December, 2012. At the season announcement for 2013-14, David Gockley announces Show Boat and, as far as I can tell from my report of the press conference, tells us the show will not be amplified ("I believe we were also promised that it would not be amplified ("not dependent on mikes stuck down their throats")).
  • June, 2014. Show Boat opens. All of the dialog is amplified and some of the singers are amplified when they sing, those with the smaller - non-operatic - voices. Everybody sounds amplified because of "ambient microphones" in use; there is a nasty halo around the voices of Patricia Racette and Morris Robinson, for example, because of the ambient microphones. I wrote:

    Considering that part of the reason for doing a show like this in an opera house is that Broadway houses don't use full orchestras and don't use singers who can, you know, sing, maybe SFO should only be hiring singers with operatic voices when it does musicals.
  • January, 2014. Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, one of the greatest shows ever, is announced. No press conference; we get press releases instead, so we can't ask on the spot whether there will be amplification or not. Seeing that the cast is all opera singers (Gerald Finley, Stephanie Blythe, Heidi Stober, etc.). I make a bad assumption and don't send a question in email.
  • September 12, 2015. Sweeney Todd opens and everybody is equipped with body mikes, soloists and chorus alike. And it does basically no good at all.
I haven't asked SF Opera why everyone in the production is amplified, because the results are more important, at this point, than the reasoning. It might be something like "we need the dialog amplified and we can't switch the mikes on and off depending on the stage action because the audience would have to adjust its listening so often."

Well, the amplification sounds awful. The chorus is smallish for this show and the amplification makes them sound shallow and the sopranos shrill. They are not either shallow-voiced or shrill. The amplification is distracting, and because microphone technique is somewhat different from full-out vocal technique - or so said Sid Chen years ago when he started singing in Meredith Monk's vocal ensemble - there's a sense that the singers are holding back.

The dialog and song lyrics are very tough to make out, for these reasons:
  • Sondheim's lyrics are incredibly clever and difficult to parse, and there are a lot of words packed in. You don't often catch him writing long melismas; oh, okay, in "Johanna" and probably some of the other songs. But my brain was consistently behind the singers.
  • British accents. Inconsistent British accents, from singer to singer. Brian Mulligan's accent doesn't sound that much like Stephanie Blythe's, and hers is perhaps the broadest and most consistent in the show.
  • The theater is just too damn big for musical theater. (It's too damn big for opera.)
  • The amplification is not done well. It is much too obvious.
  • Terrible balances between the stage and pit. Especially at the beginning of the show last week, the orchestra was too loud.
A big, big sigh from me. I love this show, for its macabre plot, its wonderful songs, and its endlessly inventive lyrics. I have no doubt that the cast is doing its absolute best under the circumstances, but I wish SFO would just turn off the microphones. Maybe the show wouldn't sound better, but maybe it would. At least these great singers could sing out without fear.

All of that said, the production is decent-looking and effective and reasonably well directed. I can't say too much about the acting except at the highest level, because I was in the Dress Circle without my binoculars, a clear case of user stupidity on my part, because even if you have great eyes, you just can't see that much facial detail from that close to the back wall of the theater.

The singing was all very good, as you might expect with Brian Mulligan (Sweeney Todd), Stephanie Blythe (Mrs. Lovett), Heidi Stober (Johanna), Elizabeth Futral (Beggar Woman), Elliot Madore (Anthony), and Wayne Tigges (Judge Turpin). I like Stober more every time I hear her; ditto Mulligan (and I'll be happy to hear him unamplified in Lucia and the Poe double bill). Blythe has great comic talent and of course a hell of a voice, which she does not get to put on display in this show. (And no, I could not understand every word and thank Lotfi for the Supertitles.)

Madore is a newcomer to the company and I was a bit surprised to hear a baritone in this role; I thought it was written for tenor, but a perusal of the show requirements at the licensing company includes vocal ranges rather than voice types.

To wrap this up, a friend asked me whether it was worth seeing the show, and I could not give her an enthusiastic yes. I offered these options:

  • Pay a lot of money for a seat in the orchestra, first 15 rows, dead center.
  • Pay a lot less money for a seat in the balcony, on an OperaVision night.
  • Rent the video with Angela Lansbury and George Hearn.
Next time SFO performs a musical, I'll ask about amplification before I buy my tickets.

Milhaud's Médée at Mills

The worst-publicized event of the week is a performance at Mills College, Oakland of a rarity, Darius Milhaud's Médée, from 1938. Milhaud taught at Mills for many years and the college continues to perform his music.

Here's the cast and other information; anything that Nicole Paiement is involved is likely to be excellent.

Composer: Darius Milhaud
Libretto: Madeleine Milhaud
Conductor: Nicole Paiement
Director/Concept/Lighting Designer: Brian Staufenbiel
Master Electrian: Kevin Landesman
Choral Conductor: Lucik Aprahamian
Project Director/Stage Manager: Laura Anderson
Associate Stage Manager: Saskia Lee 

Créuse: Maya Kherani, soprano
Médée: Marnie Breckenridge, soprano
La Nourice: Mariya Kaganskaya, mezzo soprano
Créon: Eugene Brancoveanu, bass
Jason: Jonathan Smucker, tenor

Friday, September 25, 2015
8 p.m.
Littlefield Concert Hall, Mills College
Tickets: FREE

The performance web page has a link for making reservations, which are highly recommended.

Saariaho at Berkeley Symphony

Berkeley Symphony opens its season on Wednesday (not the usual Thursday!), October 14, 2015, with a luscious program:
  • Berlioz, Les Nuit d'été, for those of you still longing to see Les Troyens again; Simone Osborne is the soloist.
  • Saariaho, Lanterna Magica. She has fans around here, despite the impression you might get from some Bay Area reviewers. 
  • Ravel, Bolero
Lanterna Magica was done at the Proms in 2012 and a video is posted on YouTube. Here it is, complete with a brief interview with Saariaho.

October 14 happens to be Saariaho's birthday, so perhaps you should be prepared to sing a song recently declared to be in the public domain.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

SFO Cast Change AND Opera Medal Announcement

It's two, two, two posts in one!

Patrick Summers will be heading back to Houston a bit early; he will conduct tonight's Sweeney Todd, then return to Houston for an "urgent professional obligation." The two remaining performances in the run will be conducted by James Lowe.

But before Summers gets on the plane, he'll receive the San Francisco Opera Medal, honoring his 25 years of service to the company, during which he has conducted a wide variety of repertory with distinction. Congratulations, Patrick!

And congratulations to the member of the communications staff who included this gem in the press release:
Currently thrilling San Francisco Opera audiences with razor-sharp performances of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Yes, I did chortle over that.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Personnel Changes, San Francisco Symphony

A press release from SFS contains information about personnel changes this season:
  • Eugene Izotov joins the orchestra as principal oboe.
  • Chris Gaudi continues as acting associate oboe, as a one-year substitute.
  • Dan Carlson has received tenure as principal second violin. 
  • Paul Brancato continues as acting associate principal second violin. Members of the section will rotate as acting assistant principal. 
  • Sarah Knutson continues as a one-year substitute member of the second violin section.
  •  SFS principal bass Scott Pingel is on a partial leave of absence this season to teach at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. 
  • Associate principal bass Larry Epstein retired at the end of the 2014-15 season, after 41 years with the Orchestra. 
  • Jeremy Kurtz-Harris, principal bass of the San Diego Symphony, will fill the position of acting associate principal bass, as a one year substitute.
  • Mark Grisez continues as acting associate principal trumpet, as a one-year substitute.
  • Tim Owner continues as acting associate principal trombone, as a one-year substitute.
  • Michael Israelievitch will fill the position of acting principal timpani, as a one-year substitute. (I loved Israelievitch when he filled in for a couple of concerts in the 2012-13 season, including David Robertson's Carter/Gershwin/Ravel program.)

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Learn to Protect Yourself! Take a Women's Self-Defense Class!

UPDATED: New dates & class times!

Ever worried about being attacked? Learn effective self-protection in this 12-hour class, taught by Lisa Hirsch, a black belt jujitsu instructor who has decades of teaching experience.

You'll learn:
  • Alertness, awareness, and avoidance
  • Basic kicks and strikes
  • Escapes from common attacks
  • Home, street, and car safety
  • And much more!
This class is suitable for all women age 16 and above; techniques easily adaptable for your particular needs and abilities. We are LGBTQ-welcoming.

Four Saturdays, October 10 & 31;  November 14 & 21, 2015
12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.

Class fee is $110 if you register and pay before October 1; $125 after that. This class is open to all regardless of ability to pay.

Class location:
Mind Body Dojo
7512 Fairmount Ave.
El Cerrito, CA

Located just up Fairmount from El Cerrito Plaza BART, El Cerrito Plaza, San Pablo Ave., across the street from FatApple's Restaurant. The nearest freeway exits are Central Ave, from both 580 and 80

Sign up by sending email to or calling (510) 842-6243.

Who's Next?

Major cast changes at SF Opera so far:
  • Thomas Hampson withdraws from Luisa Miller after deciding that the role of Miller isn't for him.
  • Gerald Finley withdraws from Sweeney Todd on account of impending childbirth
  • Diana Damrau withdraws from Lucia di Lammermoor on account of exhaustion
  • Phillipe Sly withdrew from The Magic Flute on account of family needs
  • Nadine Sierra, stepping into Lucia for Damrau, withdraws from several performances of The Magic Flute (Okay, good on her for jumping in.)
This makes contemplate the cast of Die Meistersinger, which is full of singers new to their roles, including Brandon Jovanovich (Walther), Greer Grimsley (Hans Sachs), Rachel Willis-Sorensen (Eva), Sasha Cooke (Magdalena), and Alek Shrader (David). Uh, that is most of the leads.

Friday, September 18, 2015


Damrau out, Sierra in:
San Francisco Opera today announced cast changes for the Company’s new production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, presented October 8–28, 2015, and for Mozart’s The Magic Flute, presented October 20–November 20, at the War Memorial Opera House. German soprano Diana Damrau has withdrawn from the Lucia production, in order to remain on vocal rest for the next six weeks. American soprano Nadine Sierra—who performed Lucia last spring at the Zurich Opera House to critical acclaim and, more recently, as the Countess in San Francisco Opera’s The Marriage of Figaro—will now sing the title role for all seven performances.
"I am deeply sorry for all of those who had looked forward to my performances in San Francisco and I ask for your understanding,” said Damrau in a written statement. “After 15 years of performing with little or no time for substantial rest and recuperation, along with the demands that come with a beautiful, young family, my body has reached the point when it is now ‘insisting’ that I pause for a short time. … The issue is in no way vocal, but one of exhaustion that the doctors tell me ten weeks of rest will without question fix.” Damrau is currently taking her rest here in San Francisco with her family and husband, French bass-baritone Nicolas Testé who will be making his San Francisco Opera debut in the role of Raimondo.
Sierra’s appearance in Lucia affects casting in the Company’s revival production of The Magic Flute; she was initially to have sung the role of Pamina. Soprano Sarah Shafer, recently seen as Rosetta in the world premiere of Marco Tutino’s opera Two Women, will now take on the first four performances (October 20, 25, 27 and 29) and Sierra will sing the remaining six performances as originally scheduled (November 4, 8, 12, 14, 17 and 20).
Wishing Ms. Damrau a swift recovery from the exhaustion!


By being in rows 1, 4, 6, and 12 in Bayreuth, that is, and then in the orchestra for Luisa Miller. I'll tell you, Row R in the War Memorial Opera House feels really far away compared to where I was sitting in Germany, and my dress circle seats might as well be on Market St.

I'm not going to routinely spend $250-$350 for seats, so I think it will be back to the balcony for me next season, perhaps on OperaVision nights, because then you can (sort of) see.

And yeah, the combination of distance, British accent, and intermittent, mediocre amplification meant that I understood about half of what Stephanie Blythe was singing; sometimes more, sometimes less. You bet I was glad for the supertitles.

Damrau Out of SFO Lucia?

San Francisco Classical Voice has a story saying that it looks as though Nadine Sierra may be taking over Diana Damrau's run of performances in the title role of Lucia di Lammermoor. Damn, I say, if this is true. Damrau's a great singer and I was looking forward to seeing her.

London Friday Photo

Royal Courts of Justice
May, 2014

Thursday, September 17, 2015

I Call Bullshit on Stephanie Blythe.

Update: It has come to my attention that Sweeney Todd is amplified. One friend hated it so much he walked out. I wonder whether Blythe mentioned this to her interviewer, and what effect that knowledge might have had on the interview.

Janos Gereben interviewed mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, one of the stars of SF Opera's Sweeney Todd, and along the way she had a few things to say about supertitles.
It's a hot-button issue with me. I do not believe in them, full stop. I believe with all my heart that what Supertitles have done is to train audiences not to listen. 
They don't listen the same way - they hear it but they don't listen. I am not here to ruffle feathers about Supertitles, but I am an artist first, I serve the music, the audience, and what I see is that Supertitles have not only changed the way audiences listen, but changed the way singers prepare. It has made it a completely different experience. 
Last night, for example [at the dress rehearsal, attended by school audiences], there were several times in the dialog [which is included in the titles] when a had a word slip and I put in something else, I got the gist of the line, and my first thought was, Oh crap, that's not what they are getting in the titles! It shouldn't be that way. 
I work overtime in everything I do to be sure, especially in my own language, so that everyone understands me, so they don't have to look. Imagine, put yourself in the body of a singer, who is looking into an audience, and all you see is this: chins up.
Where to start? Well, with the idea that somehow audiences that don't have supertitles are better listeners. Blythe might try going to a bunch of symphony concerts, and see what she thinks of audiences there. She could ask them some questions about why they are there and how they listen to music. She might be surprised; lots of them are there for companionship or to hear the pretty tunes. They are not listening in the analytical and attentive way she might imagine they are.

I am curious about just how far she can see into the house when she's performing. I'm pretty certain she can't see me in the Dress Circle. And when I'm in the orchestra, my chin is up partly so that I can see the stage!

As she says, she's there to serve the audience. Audiences are better served by knowing what's happening on stage, and in more detail than might be obvious from the staging. I just saw seven operas in German, a language I don't understand very well, without supertitles. Fortunately, I've read the librettos, multiple times, and I've seen each of the operas multiple times with supertitles, but even then, I do not know what's happening or being said on a line-by-line basis, because I just can't carry around seven 900 to 1200 line translations in my head.

Maybe she can. If that's the case, I want to hear how she does it.

And, you know, there's an obvious solution to what she sees as a problem. She could be advocating for opera in English. That's right, English-language operas, and opera in translation. This will get her laughed out of every opera house in the English-speaking world that isn't the Coliseum, London.*

Oh, wait: Sweeney Todd is in English. Well, maybe she should try to talk David Gockley into turning the supertitles off. Surely her diction is good enough to be understood 150 feet away in the far reaches of the opera house, right? And under the orchestra overhang?

Well, let's look at a past review of a Blythe recital, written by me. She performed a song cycle on a Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center program, in a small venue, Herbst Theater, which seats maybe 900. Here is what I had to say:
The texts weren’t printed in the program, at Blythe’s request, on the grounds that she would like to see the audience’s faces when she sings to them, and because she feels her diction is good enough that the texts aren’t necessary. This would have been easier for me to swallow if Blythe herself hadn’t had the score and texts in front of her for the duration. As an audience member I found this distracting. Moreover, while her diction was, indeed, largely superb, I had to wait until the distribution of the text during intermission to find out what, exactly, had happened to the horses at the climax of “The Mountain.” (Spoiler: No equines died in the making of the song cycle.)
I'd like to remind Stephanie Blythe that she can talk about serving the audience all she wants, but what she is proposing - the elimination of supertitles - and what she does in her performances - deny audiences the printed text - are profoundly anti-audience. I'd also like to remind her that we are paying her fees. And lastly, I'd like to suggest that she spend some time attending opera performances in a language she doesn't understand, perhaps Russian or Hungarian, and then get back to me about how terrible supertitles are.

* Personally, I would be fine with more opera in good English translations. Not Jeremy Sams, not David Gockley, but translations by Andrew Porter.

Changes: Marin Alsop Stepping Down From Cabrillo Festival

From the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music:
SANTA CRUZ, CA - September 17, 2015 - Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music announced today that Maestra Marin Alsop will step down from her role as Music Director and Conductor in August 2016, following her 25th anniversary season. The Cabrillo Festival's 54th season runs August 5-13, 2016 in Santa Cruz, CA.
America's longest running festival dedicated to new music for orchestra, the Cabrillo Festival is a preeminent force in new music, both nationally and internationally. Celebrated as a "summer mecca for musicians and a premier musical destination for audiences," (San Jose Mercury News) the Festival attracts some of the world's top contemporary composers whose compositions are shared with an award-winning orchestra and an enthusiastic audience.
Long-time Executive Director Ellen Primack and the Cabrillo Festival Board of Directors have initiated a strategic process to identify new artistic leadership. 
"It is with great sadness and after much contemplation that I make this decision but I believe this is the right time for me and for the Festival," said Alsop. "I look forward to the 2016 season when we'll celebrate all that we have accomplished together. This Festival has always been about the new and is championed by audiences and musicians who embrace a sense of discovery and risk and so I am confident and excited about what the future holds for this extraordinary institution."
I think this is good; the programming there was better this year than for the last few, but it has seemed stuck in a particular rut and this may shake it loose. 

Quote of the Day

Tweets musicologist Will Robin:
There are no great female composers because "great" is a gendered word that imbecile misogynists ascribe exclusively to male artists.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Some Advice for the Met

Yes, you certainly could raise a boatload of money in one fell swoop by selling the naming rights for the building; I've seen estimates up to $150 million. Unless you've got someone willing to name it after, say, Caruso or Flagstad or Mahler or Toscanini, it will leave a bad taste in everyone's mouths, just the way Koch Theater and Geffen Hall leave bad tastes.

David Gockley has managed to greatly increase the San Francisco Opera endowment and obtain donations of up to $40 million without selling the name of the War Memorial Opera House. He'll have some free time in less than a year, but I bet he can tell you how he does it over the phone. And he can probably help out with labor relations as well. That's been going nicely at the opera house since he arrived.

Also, Met? Keep in mind how well it all worked out for you with Alberto Vilar. What you might want to consider is staging operas that people want to see. A season as top-heavy as yours is on Puccini and Donizetti isn't going to get me in the door.

Auditions: San Francisco Symphony

Looking at the auditions page at San Francisco Symphony's web site is always a good thing to do at the beginning of a new season. Here are the auditions taking place in the near future:
  • Associate principal bass
  • Associate principal trombone
  • Associate principal trumpet
  • Principal timpani
The resume dates for these auditions are long past; auditions start this month and next.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Season Opener and Media Round-Up

My review of San Francisco Opera's Luisa Miller is posted at SFCV. As you can see, I just could not get very enthused about it, between uncharacteristically blah conducting from Nicola Luisotti, poor direction, a production that would be better if you just removed a few elements, (the horse! the riding crops! if a riding crop appears on stage in Act I, it must beat someone bloody by Act III) and mixed singing.

Luisotti is known to be variable from performance to performance, so that's the element most likely to perk up the proceedings in future performances. But it's too late to rescue the direction and make something more dramatic out of the production.

And let's face it: it's not a very good opera. Two years later, Verdi would be writing a masterpiece nearly every time he set pen to paper, and even the misses (the first Boccanegra, the debatable Vepres Sicilienne) would be a lot more interesting than Luisa.

Looking over the Verdi works list, I sort of blame Cammarano, mostly because the works around that time with librettos by Piave are so much better. "Sort of" because I haven't read the chapter in Budden about Luisa so I don't know what else might have affected the circumstances under which Verdi wrote the opera.

But the question still comes up: Why not perform Ernani instead? It calls for similar performing forces and has a much more interesting score. (Of the plot, I say little, because it sucks in its unbelievability.) It needs a blood and thunder approach to work, same as Luisa, and the only time I've seen it live was in an overly-polite production at ENO.

Well, I think the answer to my question is simple: SF Opera owns a Luisa production, but not an Ernani production. The company has performed it in 1968, 1969 (LA), and 1984 only.  The Ernani production must be long gone and might have been borrowed anyway.
More to come.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Ladies and Gentlemen, Place Your Bets!

Who will be the next General Director of San Francisco Opera?

Why, we are going to find out next week. The announcement is coming on Tuesday, September 22.

My personal desires are limited:
  • David Gockley's business skills
  • Pamela Rosenberg's programming interests
It's 2015; can't we graft their brains together?

Saturday, September 12, 2015

At the Grave of Richard Wagner

Bouquet from Wagner Society of Northern California
Haus Wahnfried, Bayreuth

The urn containing Cosima Wagner's ashes is buried in the mound of Wagner's grave as well.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Whither Bayreuth?

Attending the Bayreuth Festival raised a few questions in my mind about the Festival's repertory. Here we've got possibly the greatest opera house in the world, used for perhaps three months a year for rehearsals and performances of an extremely limited repertory.

The cult of Richard Wagner is the primary reason for this. Whatever the composer might have envisioned for the future of his house, his family has spent the 130 years since his death carefully cultivating the religion. Cosima froze the Festival's production style in the 1880s for decades. The Festival can't even perform Wagner's first three operas there, because Wagner himself forbade it.

Well, Wagner's been gone a long time. Perhaps the moment has come, or will come some day, to rethink the repertory performed. Would continued family control and such limited repertory be tolerated for any other composer?

I do realize that there might be a practical limitation on how much the theater can be used. It's 140 years old, it's wood, and I have no idea how fragile it is or how much use it can tolerate. But let's run the Bayreuth repertory thought experiment anyway.

1. Put Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot, and Rienzi into the rotating repertory. There, we've had a nearly 30% increase in what can be performed! More importantly, these operas shouldn't be ignored, however much Wagner might have wanted to disown them. He wrote them and they are part of where he came from. We can understand his mature operas better if we hear them more often. Are they really worse than any number of other operas that hold the operatic stage for one reason for another? Faust? Elisir?

2. Perform early German Romantic operas, especially Weber's Oberon and Freischütz. Schubert wrote a few operas, reputed to be weak. There's Schumann's Genoveva. How about Marschner's Der Vampyr? There've got to be others worth hearing.

3. Perform the works of the French Wagnerians. Wouldn't you love to hear Reyer's Sigurd, and works by Chabrier, D'Indy, and others?

4. Perform works by Wagner's German and Austrian successors, especially those who are underperformed. We don't really need more Strauss performances, but James Conlon might have a few ideas. Recovered Voices at Bayreuth!

London Friday Photo

Methodist Central Hall, Westminster
London, May 2014

While its exterior dome might not look familiar, even though it's catty-corner to Westminster Abbey, Methodist Central Hall's spectacular Great Hall made an appearance in the popular film Calendar Girls (Mirren, Wilton, Walters, Hinds, etc.) in 2003. And back in the 1920s, it was used on occasion to make recordings; it's where Eva Turner's first London records were recorded in 1928, including her famous recording of the Turandot aria.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Bayreuth Tickets: Not as Hard as You Think

I've gotten a number of question from friends about how, exactly, you get tickets to Bayreuth. Everybody knows that it takes seven or eight years - except that it doesn't, depending on how you go about obtaining tickets.  Here's the story from the Festival itself, and here's what I know:

1. Join the Society of Friends of Bayreuth (Gesellschaft der Freunde von Bayreuth). This gets you ticket-offer priority of some kind, though the required donation to the Society is something like 200 or 225 Euros/year.

I sort of got my tickets through the Society. I joined the Wagner Society around a decade ago, with the idea that SOME DAY I would have the time and money to go to Bayreuth. The various Wagner Societies used to get significant ticket allotments, but that is no longer the case. The Wagner Society of Northern CA got two sets of tickets this year through the Gesellschaft der Freunde von Bayreuth, and I got one of them

2. Join a Wagner Society (see the above). If you're a fan, you might want to do this whether you're trying to get Bayreuth tickets or not. Note that the Wagner Society of Northern California isn't currently listed at the link.

3. Apply directly to the Festival. Yes, you might be on the Festival's waiting list for seven years.

4. Buy from the Festival web site.

Yes, the Festival has started making some tickets available on their web site! In fact, this is how my friend Joan went: In May or June I happened to mention to her that there were tickets available that way, and ten minutes later she had Ring tickets and a hotel reservation. Her Ring seats were in the loge, the boxes at the very back of the house, not the best but she had a REAL CHAIR to sit on. A week or so later she got decent seats to Tristan. 

The house is small by American standards, seating only 1900, and its layout is unusual, so there aren't what I would call bad seats. However, sitting in the front row for Flying Dutchman was really strange; the sound from the pit not as beautiful as elsewhere, but you were on top of the action AND had decent leg room.

To get seats this way, you will need to keep a eye on the web site. I do not know exactly when the Festival will offer seats there. As of now (September, 2015), they are accepting orders, via the web site and by mail, but you can't yet buy directly.

5. Returns

This is risky - apparently there are sometimes day-of returns, and you show up before the performance to buy. Long lines, I imagine, and nobody from the US is going to schlep to Germany in hopes of returns. But if you are living in Europe, or you have tickets to X and want to see Y....

6. Secondary market

One festival-goer- whose name and email I did not get - told me and Joan that the festival now allows some sales on a secondary market in Germany. Of course I also have forgotten the NAME of the web site where this goes on, plus it is said that if you are caught with secondary-market tickets, they'll throw you out of the house. so this should also be deemed somewhat risky.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Letter from Bayreuth

Me, in a possibly recognizable location

My SFCV Letter from Bayreuth is posted. I know how long it was when I sent it in - about 25% over the expected word count - and I'm afraid to check out long it is now. I wrote it in about a day and a half over the weekend, and after a week of contemplating everything I saw and heard, the process was comparatively painless. Big thanks to those of you I chatted with about the productions, the singers, and the Bayreuth experience. You know who you are.

As you might expect, there is a lot that I left out, because it really was not part of writing a review of this year's Festival. My article certainly doesn't convey the crazed intensity of seeing seven operas in eight days, especially at Bayreuth.

Performances there start either at 6, for Flying Dutchman and Rheingold, and at 4 for everything else. Dutchman and Rheingold both last about two and a half hours, so you're out in time to have dinner at a reasonable hour - well, if you consider 9 p.m. reasonable, since it will take a while to get to your hotel or a restaurant.

But consider the schedule if you're going to an opera with a 4 p.m. start time. I was staying at the Arvena Kongress, which is a 20-30 minute walk from the Festspielhaus, depending on how fast you walk, whether you're taking photos along the way, how much you dawdle. You might want to relax and do some people-watching before the show. So you leave around 3, meaning you have to get dressed starting around 2 or 2:30, depending on how elaborately you dress.

That doesn't leave a lot of time to do things in the morning, so if you have shopping or laundry to do, or you want to wander around Bayreuth, a charming city, you need to start around 9 or 10. This means being up, dressed, and breakfasted before then. Und so weiter.

Here is what a typical day looked like for me:
  • 9 a.m. or earlier, or sometimes later - wake up
  • Breakfast, which is excellent at the Arvena. Chat with friend I traveled with or fellow festival attendees.
  • Lectures - my friend sometimes went to the 10:30 at the hotel, sponsored by the Wagner Society of NY, or to the 2:45 p.m. at the Festspielhaus, sponsored by the Wagner Society of the Midwest, or both.
  • Or do something else, like laundry.
  • 2 p.m. - latest time to eat lunch
  • 2:30 p.m. - Dress for opera
  • 3 p.m. - Head for Festspielhaus
  • 3:30 p.m. - Arrive; have coffee or mineral water, or, if running desperately late, lunch
  • 4 p.m. Settle in for up to two hours of Wagner. 
  • Start first intermission, which is one hour long. Have coffee or mineral water or something sweet.
  • Settle in for Act 2.
  • Start second intermission, which is one hour long. Have dinner. I tried the sausage once, and it was not great. The stir-fried noodles - I am not making this up, you know - turned out to be tasty and economical, especially with shrimp added.
  • Settle in for Act 3.
  • Emerge from Festspielhaus around 10, blinking stupidly.
  • Walk back to hotel, arriving at 10:30 or so, depending on how much time you spent chatting with people after the opera.
  • Eventually calm down enough to sleep.
Thank goodness for the day off between Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, which we did not spend going to Nuremberg, because it would have killed us. Instead, we slept late and went to see Haus Wahnfried, Siegfried Wagner's house, and the Richard Wagner Museum.

At the end of it all, I felt a little the way Jeffrey Kahane felt after giving a lecture, performing the Goldberg Variations, taking a lunch break, and performing the Diabelli Variations:
"Well, I don't have to do that again!"
It's not that I don't want to go back: as Alex Ross tweeted, the SFCV article is about my first pilgrimage to Bayreuth. I'd like to hear Parsifal there, and, well, anything Christian Thielemann conducts. But seven operas in eight days is a lot of opera, especially when it's Wagner. 

As  you'll see from my article, I wasn't thrilled with Flying Dutchman. I will stick with my judgment, but I am well aware that I saw it on my last day and my depleted mental state may have influenced me. However, it's equally likely that, having seen the wonderful Lohengrin the night before, I had a very good idea of what worked and what didn't. 

Tokyo Symphony and Jonathan Nott Extend Contract

In other news, the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra has extended Jonathan Nott's contract through 2025-26 season.

Nelsons Adds the Leipzig Gewandaus Orchestra

Talk about surprises: I had not realized that Riccardo Chailly was leaving the legendary Leipzig Gewandaus Orchestra (founded in 1743!) until I woke up this morning and found that Andris Nelsons had been appointed to the post, starting in 2017.

The BSO and LGO will collaborate on all sorts of things, including commissions. This is very exciting for all, I'm sure.

Updated list of open spots:
  • New York Philharmonic
  • National Symphony Orchestra
  • City of Birmingham SO (Rumors of Edward Gardner)
  • Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
  • Milwaukee Symphony
  • Hong Kong Philharmonic
  • Shanghai Symphony Orchestra
  • San Diego Symphony
  • Orchestra Nationale de France
  • Vienna Staatsoper / VPO

And closed:
  • Leipzig Gewandhaus: Andris Nelsons appointed, 9/9/105
  • LSO: Simon Rattle appointed, 3/2/2015
  • Orchestra de Paris: Daniel Harding, 6/11/2015
  • Berlin Philharmonic: Kirill Petrenko appointed, 6/22/2015
  • BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra; Thomas Dausgaard succeeds Donald Runnicles in September, 2016

And Who Might These Opera Teachers Be?

Found in the NY Times Real Estate section, of all places:
For more than 30 years, my neighbors, a mother-daughter team, have run an opera-singing school out of their apartment. When our building converted to a co-op years ago, home businesses were abolished. But the opera school was grandfathered in. The mother and daughter were once grandes dames of the opera world. The lessons they give out of their apartment are very loud. I understand a pet being grandfathered in, but an opera-singing business? How can this be?
Upper West Side, Manhattan

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Robert Commanday

Dammit, I have suspected for a while that I would be writing a blog post with Bob Commanday's name on it, and, dammit, today is the day. If I were writing for SFCV or the Chron, my obit would start this way:
Robert Commanday, flutist, choral conductor, longtime music critic at the S.F. Chronicle, and founder & editor of San Francisco Classical Voice, died on September 3 at his home in Oakland. He was 93.
All true, but, well, inadequate. Bob got me started as a music writer, back in 2004, after my reply to an SFCV Question of the Week mentioned that I had been a music major. (Michelle Dulak Thomson actually answered the query, with another question: "A reader....perhaps a writer?") I had been thinking off and on how cool it would be to write for SFCV, but it never occurred to me to ASK about it, even though I was friendly with a prominent SFCV writer.

I had written just a few CD reviews since my college graduation, for Janos Gereben, who was then arts editor at the Oakland Post, but I had been a technical writer for eight years at that point, so I had some experience with deadlines.

Bob was a very sharp editor, and set high standards for SFCV writers, besides being adamant that they had good musical training, including theory and history. He had a small number of rules for us to follow (including "do not back into a review" and "do not compare performers with past performers") but otherwise gave us a lot of latitude about how we wrote. He was extremely efficient in running SFCV, as well.

Over the last few years,  he'd been less active at SFCV, after turning the editorial reins over to others, but I'd see him at concerts, the opera, and Met HD broadcasts. We chatted often.

He didn't lose his evaluative faculties one bit as he aged. My last email exchange from him, in June when he turned 93, includes comments from him about the quality of librettos in SF Opera's recent new works, and he was spot on in every detail.

 He was incredibly supportive and helpful to me, and a genuinely kind and wonderful person. I'm grateful to have known him and tremendously sorry that he is gone. Deepest condolences to his dear Mary, his children, stepchildren, and grandchildren, and to all others who knew and loved him.

UPDATED: September 8, to add Kalimac and Holoman's obits and the SFCV tribute.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

The 20th C. Symphony and Other Canons

Alex Ross has a fine article posted at TNY about the 20th c. symphony, with a follow-up blog post. Between them, they are an implicit criticism of orchestras' failure to program symphonies outside the usual 18th and 19th century suspects. He links to Bob Shingleton's On an Overgrown Path blog, and I definitely encourage reading those links.

Alex writes about a number of composers, mentioning those whose symphonies have come closest to entering the standard rep. SFS programs a couple of Shostakovich's symphonies annually, and I'd say he's awfully close to standard rep at this point.

For me, the most bizarre omission from orchestral programming is Ralph Vaughan Williams's symphonies. The composer is represented primarily by the Tallis Variations, The Lark Ascending, and other comparatively lightweight works, while his symphonies largely go unplayed. They are great works, serious and more interesting than the RVW you usually hear played in the US. I've seen the Fourth twice, conducted weakly by Botstein and wonderfully by Yan Pascal Tortelier, and the London, in a terrific performance by Osmo Vanska. I'm particularly astonished that SFS, with its magnificent Symphony Chorus, has not yet performed A Sea Symphony, which sets poems, or parts of poems, from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass.

These symphonies also pass current marketing-driven requirements for "accessibility." They are conventionally beautiful, even when bleak, and are works that a conservative audience is likely to find acceptable.

Elsewhere in discussions of canonical repertory, Speight Jenkins, former general director of Seattle Opera, published a truly foolish article asserting that the big problem in opera today is that singers don't emote enough. Okay, maybe we are attending different operas; I don't see this, and moreover what I do see is a lot of superb ensemble work, which, in a theatrically and dramatically sophisticated world, should not be overlooked or denigrated.

He goes on to make the absurd claim that Maria Callas and Leonie Rysanek couldn't get work today because of their combination of vocal instability and dramatic commitment. This is patent bullshit; I can name more than a few singers with erratic vocalism and great dramatic commitment, starting with Evelyn Herlitzius and proceeding to singers like Lauren Flanigan, Gwyneth Jones, and others.

Lastly, he says that he doesn't think the operatic canon is limited. Well, I call bullshit on him again. Here are useful statistics about most-performed operas and composers from, that immense storehouse of performance information. Read those tables and weep.

Needless to say, you can find similar statistics about what gets played at US symphony orchestras, via the League of American Orchestras. You'll cry when you look at their reports as well.

Photos from Germany

Friedensengel, Munich

I mentioned elsewhere that I somehow managed to take about 1200 photos in 17 days in Germany, which surprised me, as I did not lug around my dSLR all the time.

I've started posting them on Flickr, breaking them down as best I can. So, I am not uploading 120 photos from the Bavarian State Museum in one huge album; I'm breaking them down into several different topics.

You can see the collection (a listing of the albums) right here. Rest assured, there will be some kind of best-of collection of maybe 50 photos, for those of you who would like the highlights version.

Friday, September 04, 2015

More Commanday

Sam Smith at SF Conservatory of Music just emailed several of with the link to the Robert Commanday Oral History page at the SFCM's web site. Wow; this is a real treasure. Can't wait to listen to it all.

London Friday Photo

Old Signage
Near Geffrye Museum
May, 2014

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Metropolitan Opera Cast Change: Il Trovatore

I think this counts as good news, because Hvorostovsky will be singing the first three performances:
Dmitri Hvorostovsky has withdrawn from three performances of Verdi’s Il Trovatore at the Met this season, on October 7, 10, and 17. Hvorostovsky, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor in June, will sing the opening performances of the opera at the Met as scheduled (September 25 and 29, and October 3 matinee), then return to London for continued treatment.   
Vitaliy Bilyy will sing di Luna on October 7, 10, and 17, a role he performed at the Met in 2010. The Ukrainian baritone made his Met debut in 2007 as Denisov in Prokofiev’s War and Peace and has also sung Shaklovity in Mussorsgky’s Khovanshchina with the company. He has sung di Luna at the Bavarian State Opera, Toulouse’s Théâtre du Capitol, and the Teatro Municipal in Santiago, Chile.  
The fall performances of Il Trovatore are conducted by Marco Armiliato and also star Anna Netrebko as Leonora, Dolora Zajick as Azucena, Yonghoon Lee and Antonello Palombi as Manrico, and Štefan Kocán as Ferrando.
Wishing him the very best outcome and easiest possible continuing treatment for the brain tumor.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

SF Opera: Additional Cast Changes, Fall Season

Two casting updates:
San Francisco Opera today announced two cast updates for its season-opening productions of Verdi’s Luisa Miller and Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Australian bass-baritone Daniel Sumegi will return to the War Memorial Opera House to sing the role of Count Walter in Verdi’s Luisa Miller, replacing Rafał Siwek. In lieu of John Easterlin, tenor David Curry will make his Company debut in the role of Adolfo Pirelli in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Both Siwek and Easterlin have withdrawn from the productions, citing personal reasons.