Earlier in the week, GodDaughter2 was out West, doing an audition (successfully as it turned out), and afterwards we met up. After dining, we visited the nearby Westfield shopping centre, and while she looked at some shoes or some such things, I took this photo, of an advertising screen, switching from one advert to another:
I only just noticed the above message-collision, while seeking a quota photo. Today was a busy day.
Today, thanks to GodDaughter2, who is a singing student, I got to see a dress rehearsal of a new opera being staged by English National Opera called Jack The Ripper: The Women of Whitechapel. I had my camera with me, but these places don’t encourage photography, so I was assuming I’d emerge from the Coliseum with only the memories of what we’d seen and heard.
The story was, of course, gruesome, and GodDaughter2 grumbled about the lighting, which was relentlessly dark and depressing. However, the music was pleasingly tonal, drenched in melodies, and most especially in harmonies, of a sort that seemed, in my youth half a century ago, like they’d vanished from the world of new opera for ever.
Back in that stricken post-Schoenbergian musical no-man’s-land, posh music was thought to “progress”, like science. And it had progressed up its own rear end into unmelodious, unharmonious, unrhythmic oblivion, and because this was progress, no way back was permitted. But then, that was all blown to smithereens by the likes of Philip Glass and John Adams. Iain Bell, the composer of Jack The Ripper, operates in the musical world established by those two American giants.
So even though we were about a quarter of a mile away from the action, up near the ceiling, and thus couldn’t make out anyone’s face, just being there was a most agreeable experience.
And then come the curtaln call at the end, there was another nice surprise:
That being the final surtitle of the show, to be seen in the spot up above the stage where all the previous surtitles had been saying what they had been singing. So I got my camera out, cranked up the zoom to full power, and did what I could.
The curtain calls looked like this:
I was particularly interested in the lady in the yellow dress, on the right of the four ladies (guess what they all had in common), because that lady was Janis Kelly, who is GodDaughter2’s singing teacher at the Royal College.
Rather disappointingly, for me, was that most of the photos I took of Ms Kelly were better of the lady standing next to her when they were taking their bows, a certain Marie McLaughlin:
But I did get one reasonably adequate snap of Ms Kelly, suitably cropped (the photo, I mean) to remove Ms McLaughlin, whose nose had been sliced off in the original version that had emerged from the camera:
My camera now has much better eyesight than I do, and the gap seems to grow by the month. Okay, that photo is rather blurry. But there was a lot of zoom involved. I only managed to decipher about a third of those surtitles. One of the key members of the cast was black, but I only found this out when I got home and saw her in one of my photos (see above).
I hope a DVD, or perhaps some kind of internetted video, of this production emerges. And I think it might, because this is a show full of pro-female messages of the sort that appeal to modern tastes, and featuring one of the most spectacular exercises in toxic masculinity in London’s entire history.
I’m now going to read the synopsis of the show at the far end of the first link above, to get a a more exact idea of what happened.
I was reading this piece by Will Self about the baleful effect upon literature of the internet, screen reading instead of proper reading from paper bound into books, etc. But then I got interrupted by the thought of writing this, which is about how a big difference between reading from a screen, as I just was, and reading from a printed book, is that if you are reading a book, it is more cumbersome, and sometimes not possible, to switch to attending to something else, like consulting the county cricket scores (Surrey are just now being bollocked by Essex), seeing what the latest is on Instapundit, or tuning into the latest pronouncements of Friends on Facebook or enemies on Twitter, or whatever is your equivalent list of interruptions.
This effect works when I am reading a book in the lavatory, even though, in my lavatory, there are several hundred other books present. The mere fact of reading a book seems to focus my mind. Perhaps this is only a habit of mine, just as not concentrating is only a habit when I am looking at a screen, but these onlys are still a big deal.
The effect is greatly enhanced when I go walkabout, and take a book with me. Then – when being publicly transported or when pausing for coffee or rest or whatever – I cannot switch. I can only concentrate on the one book, or not.
It’s the same in the theatre or the opera house, which friends occasionally entice me into. Recently I witnessed Lohengrin at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. The production was the usual abomination, but the orchestra and chorus were sublime, as were occasional bits of the solo singing. And I now know Lohengrin a lot better. Why? Because, when I was stuck inside the ROH, there was nothing else to do except pay attention. I could shut my eyes, which I often did. But, I couldn’t wave a mouse or a stick at it and change it to The Mikado or Carry on Cleo, even though there were longish stretches when, if I could have, I would have. It was Lohengrin or nothing.
I surmise that quite a few people these days deliberately subject themselves to this sort of forced concentration, knowing that it may be a bit of a struggle, but that it will a struggle they will be glad to have struggled with. I don’t think it’s just me.
This explains, among other things, why I still resist portable screens. Getting out and about is a chance to concentrate.
Recently I bought a CD set of Showboat, and yesterday I listened to it. Showboat is not really my kind of thing. When it comes to singing, I tend to prefer either Schubert or the Rolling Stones. I bought this Showboat to learn more about a lady called Janis Kelly. As you can see to the right there, she is one of the star singers in this recording.
Janis Kelly is something of a legend in the classical singing world. She is a fine singer in operas and music dramas of all kinds, and she sang the part of “Magnolia” in this performance of Showboat. She is also a much admired singing teacher, of the sort that singers she has taught spend the rest of their careers boasting that they were taught by, in their CVs and programme notes. And, Janis Kelly just happens to be GodDaughter2’s singing teacher at the Royal College of Music. (GD2’s graduation recital being further evidence, to my ears, and eyes, of Ms. Kelly’s teaching prowess.)
Janis Kelly sounded great on this recording, but what surprised me was how much I enjoyed the recording as a whole. I am used to hearing shows like Showboat performed in a style that is aimed at audiences who basically prefer pop music to classical or orchestral music, and which typically uses pop brashness and pop exuberance to cover for the small number of musicians being deployed. This version of Showboat, however, was “orchestrated”, by Robert Russell Bennett. The sleeve notes claim that this orchestration is based on the “original 1946 score”, and (I’m guessing) might well be closer to what its composer, Jerome Kern, would have wanted than was any performance that Kern himself ever heard. This is a performance which makes clear the direct line from opera to operetta, to the music of Kern. Under the baton of John Owen Edwards, the orchestra makes a far lovelier sound than the din I was expecting.
Mercifully, what has not been opera-ed, so to speak, is the singing style. Where an operatically-inclined manner is appropriate, that is what happens, as when Janis Kelly sings, for example. But when it comes to a character like Ellie, sung by Caroline O’Connor, we get the full Broadway closely-microphoned belting style, a style that someone like Franz Lehar, or for that matter Franz Schubert, could never have imagined.
Further proof of the excellence of the singing in this performance is that, in the best Broadway style, and even when the singing is rather operatic, you can hear every word they sing. Had this show been sung in the full-on operatic style throughout, to emphasise that this is directly descended from Verdi and Wagner and Puccini, that would never have happened. (I’m still grumbling to myself about a performance of Madam Butterfly at the English National Opera (where everything is sung in English), where most of the solo singers might as well have been singing in Japanese for all the sense I could make of what they were singing.)
My feeling about opera is that I tend not to like how it is sung (too wobbly and verbally incomprehensible (see above)), but I love the sound that it makes, in between the singing. When it comes to singing, I tend to prefer the Abba style to the noise made by the average opera singer. (Above average opera singers are a different matter entirely. (Today I listened to Act 1 of this, also on CD, and it sounded stupendous.)) But as for what accompanies that singing, give me the sound of an opera orchestra every time, over the brash, jazz-band-based instrumental belting, banging and twanging that you mostly get when listening to “music theatre”, provided only that the music is the kind that works orchestrally, which in Showboat it is.
This Showboat, then, is for me the ideal compromise, between Broadway and the opera house, being the best of both and the worst of neither. Not bad for a fiver, which is all Amazon charged me for it.
This afternoon, I will journey to the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, to see and hear the first night, no less, of Lohengrin. It will be deep into the darkness of the evening before I journey back home. It will take, I believe, the best part of four hours.
It is difficult to find a role which is more handsome than Lohengrin. This is the reason why “Lohengrin” gained popularity among opera fans. The entrance scene on stage by a magic swan boat, and the dialogue scene with Elsa are outstanding.
In addition, the music of the scene of Elsa and Lohengrin’s wedding is known as the Wedding March. You can hear this March at many weddings these days.
That’s the conclusion of the comment bit about Lohengrin.
At the beginning of the summary bit, we learn that Lohengrin is set in “the first half of the tenth century”.
But if this ROH graphic (see here) is anything to go by, it will look, this evening, like this:
But, he’s holding a sword. And notice that shadow. With luck, this will be effective rather than clunky, mindful rather than mindless updating of the setting. I shall see.
And hear. What I hear will not be updated and made more relevant. That I can already be sure of.
Yesterday GodDaughter2 arranged for me to accompany her and and a selection her singing student friends to a dress rehearsal of the ENO’s La Traviata. Like every show at the E(nglish) NO, It was sung in English. It was also somewhat strangely directed, as operas tend to be nowadays. So, the students were all grumbling afterwards. What were those peculiar gestures the soprano kept on doing? “Such torture” to have listen to it in English!
As for me, my problems were that we were the usual third of a mile up and away in the sky (but with no windows through which I might have taken photos of London’s Things), and I couldn’t properly see what was happening down there in the distance, beyond the woman in front of me’s head and those brass railings that she was able crouch down and look under. I wasn’t bothered by all the strange “acting” that the singers were apparently doing, because I could hardly see it. It was all I could do to decypher the English crib (and thank goodness for that) above the stage, of what they were singing (in English also (but as often as not you still can’t make out the damn words (because of how they sing them))). But the music, by Giuseppe Verdi, which I knew only as a random bunch of tunes that I had just about quarter-heard before, is so good that I was kept constantly entertained. Plus, I understood enough of what was going on to really enjoy it, and to really learn something.
It’s quite a story. A young woman (the Traviata of the title) is trying to juggle short-term pleasure with and against long-term romantic fulfilment, is fretting about whether her true love can truly be depended upon, but also doesn’t want to get her true love into social trouble because of her lurid past causing everyone to think he could have done better, which will dishonour his entire family and make his younger sister much less marriageable. Plus, she is not in the best of health and has to keep seeing a doctor.
I can remember, way back in the sixties, when it was believed that all that social pressure stuff was dead in the water. Plus of course, in the sixties, everyone was far too young to be having any health problems. Girls could shack up with guys and have consequence-free sex, and then live happily ever after with … whoever. I think I remember thinking, even at the time: well, we’ll see. And it turns out that young girls can now be “ruined” a lot like they were in olden times, that “society” has not gone away, that people still get ill, even sometimes ill because of sex, and that La Traviata is still bang up to date.
The Father of the Traviata’s True Love very much wants True Love to stop being Traviata’s True Love, and begs Traviata to give him up. For the ENO, yesterday, this Father was sung by Alan Opie. He was especially good. A bloke had come on at the beginning and said that, what with this being only a dress rehearsal, some of the singers might be holding back a bit, saving it for the real show. But you could definitely tell that Opie was the real deal.
Yesterday I attended a Royal Opera House Covent Garden dress rehearsal, of Puccini’s Turandot. Never having seen Turandot on stage before, I learned a lot. The singing was pretty good, especially the choral singing, but maybe I say “especially” about that because I generally prefer choral singing to “operatic” solo singing. The staging looked appropriately splendid and exotic.
But the best fun of all was, afterwards, finding this bizarre piece of writing by Michael Tanner, for the Spectator. What is bizarre is that Tanner disapproves of the characters and he disapproves of the “happy ending” at the end of Turandot, like some myopic Victorian moralist objecting to King Lear because of what sort of people they are and because of what happens at the end of that.
Turandot is obviously a very wicked and tyrannical ice-queen type of a woman. But Calaf earns Tanner’s special condemnation. This is because Calaf, being from Asia in olden times rather than the Home Counties of England now, prefers conquest, sexual and political, to the love of a good woman. He is going to subjugate Turandot, sexually and politically, or die trying, and damn the consequences. But in Michael Tanner’s world tenors are not supposed to think and behave like that. Their job is to embody virtue, not watch while the slave girl who has been in love with Calaf throughout the opera is tortured and then commits suicide to spare herself more torture. After which Calaf carries right on with subjugating Turandot. But the fact that Calaf is not the sort of person whom Tanner would want marrying his sister is rather beside the point. Or to put the same point a quite other way, it is exactly the point. It isn’t just the setting of Turandot that is exotic. These are profoundly different sorts of people to those that Michael Tanner, or for that matter I, approve of.
This is like denouncing the Ring Cycle because Wotan is a god rather than a geography teacher, or because the dragons in the Ring Cycle do not behave like hedgehogs.
Calaf was also criticised by Tanner for standing still and just singing, instead of doing lots of “acting” in the modern style. But Calaf’s whole character is that of a would-be ultra-masculine tyrant. And tyrants instinctively exude power and strength, for instance by standing still in a very masculine chest-out pose, and singing very sonorously, rather than by doing lots of fidgety acting. It is their underlings and victims who do all the acting, by re-acting to people like Calaf.
However, it often happens that critics who denounce works of art in rather ridiculous ways nevertheless understand them very well, and often a lot better than the people who say that they like them. They absolutely get what the artist was doing. It’s just that they don’t happen to like it. I recommend Tanner’s piece as a way of understand how very different Calaf and Turandot are from their equivalents in, say, La Boheme.