29 September 2010

Progress Report 9: Madeline Kahn

“Tell me, are you in show business?”
Actress, singer, pin-up

Today is Madeline Kahn’s birthday. From my first glimpse of her onscreen, I was struck by her beauty, and while preparing her authorized biography, I’ve learned that other people share my opinion — albeit not always favorably. Lucille Ball, for example, was reportedly shocked to meet Madeline on the set of the Hollywood musical Mame, because she expected to find frumpy Eunice Burns (from What’s Up, Doc?) and instead found this delectable young soprano.

There are many theories about why Madeline lost the role of Agnes Gooch in Mame (Madeline herself gave varying accounts), but among these is the simple explanation that Lucy, already nervous about a role for which she was scarcely suited, didn’t want to compete with a younger, prettier actress with a real singing voice — and a redhead, to boot.

“She had Dietrich legs.” — Mel Brooks

Madeline bounced back immediately with Blazing Saddles, the first of four pictures she made with Mel Brooks, and the one that made her a pin-up in college dormitories across America for years to come. As Lili von Shtupp, in a Merry Widow corset and not much else, Madeline was unforgettably sexy, and Brooks continued to cast her in a glamorous light, in three subsequent pictures.

Yet even by comparison with other actresses I know, Madeline was insecure about her looks, and much of what I’ve learned from talking with colleagues, family, and friends has surprised me — if only because it never would have occurred to me that such a beautiful woman had any grounds for concern.

The Eunice Burns

Much of her insecurity seems to stem from her role in What’s Up, Doc? Madeline had gone through a chubby phase during her teens, and remained a bit zaftig as a young woman — but before Eunice, she’d always played the pretty girl.

Often that was as much a consequence of her singing ability as it was of her physical attributes. The role of Daisy Mae in Li’l Abner, which Madeline played while an undergraduate at Hofstra University, was created by Edie Adams, another classically trained soprano, and the part requires that kind of voice. Cunegonde in Bernstein’s Candide and Musetta in Puccini’s La Bohème are glamour girls — with serious vocal chops. Likewise the role that Richard Rodgers wrote for her, Goldie, the sexy pagan girl in Two by Two. By the standards of Opera World, Madeline was slim and extremely attractive, and Broadway seems to have thought so, too.

Welcome to Dogpatch: In Li’l Abner at Hofstra
Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Kahn

But for What’s Up, Doc?, Madeline’s first Hollywood movie, the costume designer hid her assets under an intentionally unflattering wig and housecoat, and it’s the movie’s star, Barbra Streisand, who gets to sing. As the movie plays out, it is of course Streisand’s Judy — not Madeline’s Eunice — who wins the heart of Ryan O’Neal’s handsome Howard Bannister. (In real life, too, O’Neal preferred Streisand: their affair ended just before filming began.)

Four decades later, movie audiences have come to appreciate Streisand’s distinctive beauty: we know where to look for it now. But in 1972, we hadn’t had as much practice, and while it’s one thing to sit in the movie audience and admire Streisand (as Madeline did, too), it was another matter entirely to be playing a less attractive character opposite her, day after day.

Eunice is the brunt of many of the movie’s jokes, as well. In the courtroom scene, when she claims that thugs tried to molest her, the judge replies, “That’s unbelievable.”

Madeline’s insecurities mounted. Jeffrey Kahn remembers his sister’s late-night phone calls from California. “Is this how people really see me?” she wept.

It did seem to be the way that Hollywood saw her. A publicity photograph from Warner Bros. shows Madeline so plump (and suntanned) that I didn’t recognize her at first. Sifting through her photo albums, I sometimes wonder why she kept some pictures and not others: why, for example, did she keep this publicity still, which is probably the worst picture she ever took? Granted, she’s smiling: maybe this picture evoked happy memories of her promising start in the movies.

Or was this a “before” picture, to remind her to watch her weight? Is it an accident that she kept only one of the Warner Bros. picture, but several copies of a photo from The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (released three years after What’s Up, Doc?) — in which we see Madeline at her slimmest and most beautiful?

Was this her favorite publicity photo?

One of Madeline’s boyfriends has told me that she was so concerned about overeating that after a party, she’d throw out leftover desserts, then sprinkle kitchen cleanser over them, to be sure she wouldn’t fish them out of the trash on a late-night binge. Another close friend realized quite abruptly in the middle of an interview that she had never seen Madeline eat an entire portion of anything. Now she wondered whether Madeline had an eating disorder.

Concern for her appearance sometimes led to conflict with directors. “She’d been burned twice in two pictures of mine,” Peter Bogdanovich said with an audible deadpan during our interview. “One [What’s Up, Doc?] made her a star and the other one [Paper Moon] got her an Oscar nomination. But she didn’t like the way she looked.”

That’s an understatement. In a newspaper interview in the 1990s, Madeline even described her characters in Bogdanovich’s films as “the ugly stepsisters” to Streisand, Tatum O’Neal, and Cybill Shepherd — and it’s clear she wasn’t talking only about her characters’ functions in the plot of each film.

As Miss Trixie Delight

Paper Moon’s black-and-white photography was unflattering to her, Madeline believed, and she didn’t like her character’s tight, yet frilly, wardrobe. On the set of At Long Last Love, her third and final picture with Bogdanovich, Madeline feared that she’d look dowdy opposite Shepherd, the reigning beauty of the day (and Bogdanovich’s lover at the time).

Disobeying orders, Madeline got a suntan. This was all wrong for the movie’s 1930s setting, and what’s worse, “She looked like a lobster,” Bodganovich told me. Makeup artists had to work hard to hide her freckles. Yet most of her costumes are extremely becoming, and despite her anxieties, she holds her own opposite Shepherd. In Bogdanovich’s estimation today, “She looks fine.”

In At Long Last Love, with Duilio del Prete, Cybill Shepherd, and Burt Reynolds

Gene Wilder told me that the only time he and Madeline ever clashed was when she saw the wigs she was to wear in Smarter Brother, his directorial debut. She apologized the next day, he says, with a handwritten note and a drawing of a witch: “You will never see this person again,” she wrote. The production went smoothly thereafter; to my eyes she looks especially lovely in that film.

But glamorous treatment at the hands of trusted colleagues like Wilder and Brooks couldn’t guarantee the kind of affirmative responses Madeline needed. Even the adoration of college boys only made her worry that her young fans expected her to be the bawdy character she played in Brooks’ comedies, a far cry from her reserved, well-mannered self.

As if by moonlight…

Sometimes, even critics who liked her could be cruel (inadvertently, I presume). In Young Frankenstein, Madeline seems to have been photographed in perpetual moonlight — she glistens and sparkles — and yet, in her review of the movie in The New Yorker, Pauline Kael wrote:
Madeline Kahn has an extra dimension of sexiness; it’s almost like what Mae West had — she’s flirtatious in a self-knowing way. And everything that’s wrong about her is sexy. You look at her and think, What a beautiful translucent skin on such a big jaw; what a statuesque hourglass figure, especially where the sand has slipped. She’s so self-knowingly lascivious that she convinces you she really digs the monster. Madeline Kahn is funny and enticing because she’s soaked in passion; when you look at her, you see a water bed at just the right temperature. [December 30, 1974]
“An hourglass where the sand has slipped”? “A water bed”? And this from the pen of another woman!

To add insult to insult, Kael had targeted two of the assets in which Madeline did have confidence, and for which she frequently received compliments from men (and harassment from Danny Kaye): her breasts. (She also took justifiable pride in her hair.) So she kept on watching her weight, dieting and exercising, taking dance classes. By the time she appeared in The Sisters Rosensweig at Lincoln Center, she was 50 years old, sylph-like in a leotard — and still insecure.

In Anyone Can Whistle, 1995

In talking with one of Madeline’s closest friends, I blurted out that I wished I’d known her and somehow been able to reassure her. In response, I got first a wondering look (as if to say, “Don’t you think I tried?”), and then the measured words, “Nobody could.”

Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, and uneasy the beauty who stars on screen. Contemporary culture puts pressure on women to aspire to a certain standard of physical beauty, and Hollywood only intensifies that pressure on its actresses; I’m not sure we’ll ever figure out how to make life easier for them, though it surely helps that we’re more aware now of the challenges they face.

It would surely help, too, if we stopped comparing actresses
to water beds.

For most women, if you put on a few pounds, your self-esteem may suffer; for an actress, those same pounds can spell unemployment. And yet, to a degree, Madeline’s insecurities over her appearance underscore for me the ways in which her career — brilliant, enduring, unique — nevertheless touches on themes that are common to many American women today.

Madeline Kahn was a single woman working to support her family. She faced sexual harassment and was passed over for job opportunities, many of the jobs were tedious or beneath her abilities, and there were dry spells when she didn’t know where the next job was coming from.

And yet she kept at it, because she had to, and she gave it her best effort. I admire that in her — and in you, too.

Read more!

26 September 2010

Frances Arvold

Frances Arvold, in the anchor booth
at one of the 1984 nominating conventions.
Photograph of an original photograph by Terri Belli (I think).

Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the first of the Kennedy–Nixon debates, a landmark that altered the American political landscape — and our understanding of the power of television. All manner of folks are weighing in on the subject this weekend, effectively launching a corollary debate: how much (if any) difference did the debates make in the outcome of the 1960 presidential election? It seems clear that, if it’s ever possible to make an objective judgment on this kind of question, the surviving data aren’t ideally conclusive. As a society, we hadn’t found the means to measure the impact of a television program, though surely the debates made us realize that we needed to find those means, and fast.

While I can’t monitor all the conversations this weekend, I hope that one of the principal myths about the debates isn’t being resurrected: namely, that a CBS News makeup artist somehow sabotaged Richard Nixon’s appearance, so that he’d suffer by comparison with tanned, handsome John Kennedy.* I knew that makeup artist, and I can vouch for her absolute integrity. So could Richard Nixon.

Franny at Work
A truly awful picture of the portrait that hung (or hangs) on the wall
of the Frances Arvold Room at CBS.

Among my colleagues, opinion was divided whether the man in the chair
was Douglas Edwards (probably) or Mike Wallace (possibly).

Frances Arvold subscribed wholeheartedly to the CBS News credo, “Every man a reporter.” She arrived at the network in the Old Days, when the word “man” was understood to apply also to the very, very few women in the newsroom, and her professional ethics were a match for, if not superior to, those of the on-air reporters she worked with and befriended: Murrow, Sevareid, Cronkite, and all the rest of the legends.

Though her name was seldom, if ever, attached to the rumor that Nixon’s makeup had been sabotaged, she took it personally. The very idea that she would use her professional skills to undercut anybody, for any reason, was morally reprehensible to her. It was almost beside the point that she’d never laid a finger on Nixon that night. And so at last she did something drastic and unexpected: she wrote to Richard Nixon himself.

He replied promptly. Not only had Franny been beyond reproach in the matter, he said, he had actually refused her assistance, and regretted it afterward.

This anecdote upends a couple of other myths, I’m happy to point out. One is that Richard Nixon was incapable of telling the truth (even when, as in this case, it would have been easy to blame someone else for his failure).

Another is that the “Mainstream Media,” in its heyday, promoted personal political agenda in covering the news. Though I worked closely with her for a number of years, I don’t honestly know what Franny’s politics were — and that’s the point. Such things weren’t discussed, much less acted upon.

Franny was a pro, and one of the dearest people I’ve ever known. Her gentle, loving presence could instantly calm even the most jittery anchor or interview subject, and she could make a turnip look good on camera. I don’t think I ever heard her say a bad word about any living creature, but I heard plenty of her stories and little jokes, delivered in a lilting North Dakota accent — and very often with a blush that only deepened when other people told jokes to her.**

Out of the newsroom, hers was a sometimes lonely life, I think. For a working woman of her generation in New York, personal sacrifices had to be made. She lived very far from her family but very near the Broadcast Center on 57th Street; most often she dined alone in a neighborhood coffee shop.

And yet she was loved. When she passed away in 1992, shortly after her retirement and just as another election campaign was heating up, we were devastated. Most of us, I suspect, wondered how we’d ever be able to do our jobs again. She had made up Dan Rather on his first day at the network, and until the end of her life she was still phoning him with advice (“Cover your beard-line” was her mantra) — and also with her tender, unswerving support.***

We dedicated the makeup room to her, with speeches and tears and music, and with a plaque that — I hope and pray — still hangs on the door, though only a few of those who remember her are still around the Broadcast Center.

Franny was more than professional, she was honorable. And if somehow it had ever occurred to her to make Richard Nixon look bad in those debates, I can guarantee you this: he’d have lost the election in 1960 by a margin so great that the pundits and talking heads a half-century later would have the hard data to prove it.

*NOTE: Having attended college with the President’s son, I can confirm from personal experience that it’s futile to compete with a Kennedy’s good looks and charisma. It didn’t matter who you were: if John was in the room, nobody was looking at you. That sort of power would turn the average mortal into a complete jerk, but the great miracle of John Kennedy, Jr., was that he was a nice guy.

**Franny’s own jokes were mild, innocent to the point of naïveté, but in her makeup chair, Mike Wallace used to torment her with bawdier material.

***Though Dan had been working in television for a few years by the time he came to the network, he was still very much a product of his Texan upbringing and therefore reluctant at first to submit to Franny’s makeup ministrations. (Because, you know, he-men aren’t supposed to wear makeup.) She informed him that, with a beard-line like his, he’d look like a gorilla on camera — and he relented, understanding that, in fact, he was so very manly that makeup would be a practical necessity. (And so you can see that, from the first day, Franny understood Dan’s psychology better than almost anyone else has ever done.)

Read more!

Week of Mezzo-Madness, Part 3: Susan Graham

No home should be without this album.

On Thursday night, Susan Graham and I took a little walk along the beach. We followed a little trail in the dunes until we found our way to the shore. At first, we waded in the surf. Barefoot in the sand, the water lapping gently at our toes, we skipped and smiled and rescued starfish stranded in the sun. At other times, we stood on a cliff overlooking the sea and stared out at the storm-tossed waves. The sky was like steel, and the wind and rain beat hard against our faces. Every now and I then, I thought one of us was going to fling himself into the water — but I wasn’t sure which of us would go first.

In short, my week of Mezzo-Madness concluded with a concert by the Orchestre de Paris, conducted by Bertrand de Billy, featuring Susan’s performance of Ernest Chausson’s Poème de l’Amour et de la Mer as a centerpiece. Though she recorded this music a while ago, with Yan Pascal Tortellier and the BBC Symphony, and I’ve worn a groove through the CD since then, I’d never attended a live performance (by Susan or by anyone else) of the piece.

And so for this concert, I gave myself over to the pleasure of listening. This isn’t a challenge, really: I’m in Paris, a beautiful woman is standing in front of me and singing almost absurdly gorgeous music. Crowned heads would know this evening for the luxury it was.

From an anonymous source, a photo of Susan
in the gown she wore at the concert.

But this concert was something specific and special. I don’t know the Chausson well enough to sing along, but I’ve heard it often and don’t need to use the analytical part of my brain while I listen. It’s a moody, atmospheric piece, lushly orchestrated, and very often you can hear the swelling tides and driving winds. Not least significantly, I’m also nuts about Susan (perhaps you’ve noticed this), and she’s a wonderfully sensuous artist: from her first intake of breath, I smelled the salty sea air, and I seemed to experience the music through her. She led, and so I followed her on this journey.

The temperature of her voice seemed to change as she sang, now warm with love, now cold with loss. Colors I could see but not name shimmered and shifted in the air, and Susan’s voice seemed to embrace and caress me, to wrap me — but not to constrain me — in a velvety, invisible fabric. As is her habit, she made me feel there was no one else in the room with us, and what she had to say was private, for me alone to hear. She told me the story of the songs, but she did so in a language beyond words, and the pleasure I found was physical.

Afterward, I wondered whether I listen this way often enough. I’m so lucky to hear fine artists who have, each in her own way, a power like Susan’s. Do I permit myself to surrender to them? Or do I think too much? Surely certain performances have been spoiled for me because my expectations went unmet — but what if I came to the concert hall with no expectations, or (at least) with no demands?

Well, perhaps I’ll reserve this strategy for artists I trust and for concerts as good as this one. Maestro de Billy, leading the Orchestre for the first time, started off the concert with a youthful piece by Anton Webern, Im Sommerwind, that made an excellent companion to the Poème, giving us the “summer wind” before Chausson’s stormy seas. After the interval, the Orchestre returned with Henri Dutilleux’s Mystère de l’instant and Schumann’s Fourth Symphony — but I missed them, because I went backstage to say hello to Susan. Friends from Paris and from Texas had gathered there, and we had a merry time. But it’s just as well that I wasn’t reviewing the performance.

It was a splendid conclusion to a week of riches beyond reason, and even before Susan started to sing a line from “À Chloris,” a cappella after the concert (I nearly passed out in ecstasy), I was reminded of the message of that song: no matter what happens after, we have shared this moment.

Photo by the great Dario Acosta

Read more!

25 September 2010

Week of Mezzo-Madness, Part 2: Joyce DiDonato

The Constant Scholar: Joyce spends long hours in the library,
studying difficult scores.

When Gabriel Bacquier says of American singers, “You are always perfectly prepared,” one of the first examples who spring instantly to my mind is mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato. I hesitate to call her a perfectionist, because there’s a joyless connotation to the term, and joy is the essence of her art. It’s more apt to say that Joyce is a seeker of justice: for the composer, for the audience, and for her endlessly creative expression.

And so, when she shares a piece of music with you, you can be sure that she’s lived with it, studied it, taken it apart and put it back together again, until she knows it thoroughly and she’s ready to communicate with it. How can you tell that this is so? Because you never see any effort whatever. None. Believe me, I’ve looked. The paradox is that it’s precisely when Joyce’s song is most polished that it becomes most fresh and spontaneous. She liberates the music.*

Of course, because Joyce is human, as well as American, there must be intervening stages on the path to perfect preparation. It is even possible (I’m speculating here) that there are occasions when she opens a score and says, “What the heck am I going to do with this?” But most of us will never get to see that part of the process.

Last night was a partial exception, because Joyce sang several arias in public for the first time, in concert with the orchestra of the Opéra de Lyon, under the direction of Kazushi Ono. They’re putting together a new album, and they came to Paris as a way of taking this new material for a test-spin. Frankly, one had to listen pretty closely to guess that these musicians had been working together for only a week: the performance was never less than professional and compelling. But it was as close as we’re likely to get to understanding how Joyce DiDonato operates.

Pretty Boy: As Cherubino at the Met

The title of the album is Diva/Divo, and in the program, Joyce explores pairings of female and male characters — whether their story is told by different composers or within the same opera. Joyce’s voice has so many colors and such range (her high notes are frankly awesome) that the album concept is brilliant, not only because she sings so many trouser roles.** Thus she opened with Mozart’s Cherubino, followed with Susanna’s “Deh, vieni non tardar,” from the same opera, Le Nozze di Figaro. Cherubino was one of her early calling-cards, the vehicle for her Metropolitan Opera debut, and she just sang it in Chicago, too, a few months ago. But she’d never sung Susanna anywhere, and moreover, the role is usually a soprano.

There are precedents, women who sing both roles, and in fact my beloved Teresa Stratas, though never a mezzo, was a noted Cherubino–turned–Susanna. You’d never have guessed at Joyce’s inexperience. She turned “Deh, vieni” into something absolutely magical and spell-binding, creating an atmosphere of moonlight and anticipation that absolutely transported me.

Another new item in her repertoire, her account of Gluck’s “Amour, viens rendre à mon âme” blew me out of my seat with its blazing, heroic intensity. “I’m going to face down every obstacle,” Joyce sang, and there could be no doubt in anyone’s mind that, as Orpheus, she’d prevail. She was completely in character, acting up a storm in this and several other numbers, including her bis, Sesto’s “Parto, parto” from Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, a perfect fit for her voice.

So what were the signs that she was still exploring the music? Mostly technical, and, as I say, very hard to spot. Some of the low notes, particularly in an earlier aria from Mozart’s Clemenza, weren’t delivered with Joyce’s customary élan, and in a few passages over the course of the evening, she and the orchestra hadn’t quite established some dynamic nuances — which is a polite way to say that, a couple of times, I couldn’t hear her over the instruments. Normally, this is never a problem, and Joyce can dial up or down to suit the mood, the orchestration, and the size of the hall. In future performances (to say nothing of the new recording), she really won’t need sound engineers to make adjustments.

I know I’ve used this picture before, but it’s one of my favorites.

The counterpart to Gluck’s Orpheus was Offenbach’s Eurydice, and Joyce offered a really lovely “La mort m’apparaît souriante” from Orpheus in the Underworld that seemed to end just as it got started. This is largely Offenbach’s fault, of course, though it’s also an issue of programming (why choose something that feels so incomplete?) and, frankly, an issue of editing, too (could the song have been extended, or could something else have been tacked onto it?). However, Joyce is so canny that, before long, I expect she’ll have shaped the piece so that it won’t feel like the preamble to something larger — and her audience won’t be leaning forward and thinking, “And? And?!?” Or else she’ll sing something else.***

The Lyon orchestra gave us some instrumental interludes, too. In the first half of the program, we heard two sinfoniettas by Francis Poulenc, lovingly played and yet discordant, simply because the music has so little connection, historically and stylistically, to the vocal offerings. Better programming choices came in the second half, when the Lyonnais performed the overtures to Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride and Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict. The Lyonnais are among the best opera orchestras I’ve ever heard; they play a vast and varied repertoire each season, and nothing seems to faze them.

We got a terrific show on Wednesday night, and I daresay that much of the audience wasn’t even aware that this was a work in progress. An extra pleasure for me came from watching that audience respond to Joyce: as she has sung more and more often here, winning an ever-wider circle of admirers and lately attaining superstar-status, she’s held onto the personal qualities (as well as the artistry, of course) that endeared her to the Parisians in the first place.

To cite but one example: they love it when she speaks French. Her fluency is vastly improved over the past few years (as a flurry of print and broadcast interviews this summer can attest), but her audience finds the remaining defects thoroughly charming: I hasten to point out that they do not react this way to other Americans, when we speak their language.

In this, as in so many other regards, Joyce is singularly prodigious, and Wednesday’s concert gave me abundant reminders of that. It was a night to celebrate.

*NOTE: My perception of Joyce’s artistic heroism — her quest for “justice” and “liberation” — may be influenced by my consciousness of her childhood admiration for Wonder Woman.

**The cover art for the new album is pretty terrific, too, with contrasting pictures of Joyce in a suit and in a black evening gown.

***The Offenbach aria is another of those intriguing matters that will become moot on a CD, where it’s easier to drop a number into the program, or to build around it. A recording just moves the listener right into the next aria, whatever it happens to be.

Read more!

24 September 2010

Interview: David Adam Moore on ‘Winterreise’

Winterreise: “Gute Nacht”
Video image by David Adam Moore©

Every time he steps onstage, Texas-born baritone David Adam Moore must confront two phenomenal challenges that never arise for most other singers. First, he is exceptionally good-looking — particularly by the standards of Opera World. As Purcell’s Aeneas with Neal Goren’s Gotham Chamber Opera in 2002, David wore tight leather trousers, a navel ring, and maybe some aftershave, instantly becoming the talk of New York. More recently, he tied for first place in the fansite Barihunks’ reader survey of sexiest men in opera. It must be a constant struggle not to upstage himself.

The trousers that made New York pant:
As Aeneas, Gotham Chamber Opera, 2002.

Compounding David’s plight is a second challenge: he’s an excellent actor. Take these things into account, and it would be easy to forget that — oh, yeah — he sings, too — in Tel Aviv, Tokyo, Paris, Milan, and London (for the U.K. premiere of Eötvös’ Angels in America), as well as at American companies such as Fort Worth, New York City Opera (as Papageno, again under Goren’s baton), San Diego, Pittsburgh, and Seattle, where he was a member of the young artists’ program. For contemporary operas in English, David is a go-to guy, and he’s been known to harbor compositional ambitions of his own. But he’s equally adept in Bizet, Mozart, and Rossini.

Winterreise: “Gefror’ne Tränen”
Video image by David Adam Moore©

David possesses a warm, richly colored baritone voice and the kind of expert musicianship that allows him to step at the last minute into roles as demanding as that of Laurent in Picker’s Thérèse Raquin, learning the difficult score in a matter of days. His restless mind keeps finding new meaning in music, and new means of expression.

While the voice has plenty of heft, David really excels in projecting intimacy, and his attention to text is exemplary: nothing gets past him, as he communicates directly with each listener. These are qualities that suit him ideally to Schubert’s song cycle Die Winterreise (The Winter’s Journey), so you can imagine my excitement when I learned that David was preparing it.

Aeneas again: with Tamara Mumford
in Jonathan Miller’s production, Glimmerglass 2009.

Being David, however, he’s made things tougher for himself. He’ll perform Winterreise in a multi-media staging — for which he himself designed the video presentation — and he’s taken time out from rehearsal in order to tell us more.

WVM: To start off, where and when will the Winterreise be performed, and how can readers get tickets?

DAM: It will be Sunday, September 26, 2:30 PM, in Theater 1 of the Performing Arts Center at Houston Community College. Tickets will be available at the door. More info can be found at my website — www.davidadammoore.com. There’s also a good chance this concert will be repeated on the East coast in the near future.

Winterreise: “Rückblick”
Video image by David Adam Moore©

WVM: Who did the staging and video?

DAM: I’m doing both the staging and the video. It would feel strange to say I’m “directing” or “staging” it, since, from my end, it’s the same process of character development and storytelling I would do for any recital. What’s special about this concert is that, as the performer, I’ll be free to use the entire stage and include visual elements to illustrate things that would normally be left to the audience’s imagination. This beats the hell out of standing in the crook of a piano.

WVM: It’s a multimedia performance. What does that entail?

DAM: In this case, it will be singer, piano, a large rear projection screen displaying HD video, and a set piece on which supertitles (or side-titles, in this case) will be projected.

The text and music of Winterreise are so full of imagery that it’s impossible to perform it or listen to it without seeing some sort of mental “reel” of what is being described. The video element is an attempt to externalize this. I want to give the audience an idea of what my character is seeing as he describes it — a chance to peer into his head. So, in performing this, I’ll make a point to never interact with or refer to the screen.

Fun times: Midsummer Night’s Dream, 2007.
When David made his La Scala debut with buddy Daniel Okulitch (not pictured),
their offstage experiences sometimes sounded like a remake
of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

There are 24 songs in the cycle that follow a loose narrative thread. Each song has its own video. Some of the videos are there to set the scene and illustrate exactly what the character is experiencing. The first song, “Gute Nacht,” is a good example of this. To simply show you where/when the story takes place, the video opens with time-lapse footage of an urban neighborhood getting pounded with snow as day turns to night. The next shot depicts my character tossing and turning in bed, clearly troubled by something. Just as the key changes to C major and he sings about quietly leaving the house, he slowly gets out of the bed, revealing, for the first time, the form of a young woman sleeping peacefully next to him.

This points to the fact, which is never addressed in the text, that she’s going to wake up a few hours later and discover that he’s long gone. If you were to only see the remaining 23 songs of the cycle, you would think that he was kicked out and/or dumped because of the way he laments the loss of the relationship, but the fact is that he decided to leave, and secretly, no less. This adds a whole new layer of emotional complexity to his predicament, and raises more questions than answers, which is part of the genius of this cycle — much of the narrative is left for the performer and listener to decide.

Other videos serve as abstract meditations on the character’s emotional experience in that moment. The video for “Irrlicht,” for example, is just a close up shot of a plume of white smoke in slow motion, reversed, wafting back and forth, appearing and reappearing.

Winterreise: “Irrlicht”
Video image by David Adam Moore©

WVM: Who’s the accompanist?

DAM: The pianist will be Thomas Jaber, he’s on the faculty of Rice University and is very well known in Texas. He’s a brilliant musician, and one of the best pianists I’ve gotten to work with. I’ve known about him from the time I was a student, and have always wanted to collaborate with him.

WVM: Winterreise is something of a test for baritones. When did you first discover this music? Is this something you’ve looked forward to singing? How have you prepared for it?

DAM: This is one of those cycles I fell in love with as a student, but my teacher at Oberlin, Richard Miller, kept me away from because it is too advanced, both vocally and emotionally, for a student. It’s one of many pieces for baritone that requires solid technique, stamina, and a bit of mileage on the voice and heart before approaching. I’ve looked forward to singing this piece for years. It’s the same feeling you get when you’re a kid and your legs finally grow long enough to ride that bike you’ve been eyeing for so long.

The first time I heard it was the classic recording of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore. I was struck by how cohesive it was — the way the vocal and piano parts functioned both independently and together as storytelling devices. The repeated chords of the first song sound and feel like feet trudging through wet snow.

The first time I heard it live was when a professor at Oberlin, a bass-baritone named Gerald Crawford, sang it on a faculty recital. He was a very reserved guy, bordering on shy, and had a remarkable voice. He sang the entire cycle standing dead still, staring at the music stand. It was impossible to see his eyes, even, because his glasses reflected so much glare from the stage lights. The concert was stunning, though. He sang with so much passion and drama in his voice alone that we were floored. It was an incredible experience, and an important lesson that, ultimately, it’s not the “stage business” that sells a piece — it has to start with the voice, music, and emotional intent.

Angels in America, Fort Worth Opera, 2008:
As Pryor Walter, with soprano Janice Hall.
Photo by Ellen Appel.

WVM: The previous song cycle you worked on was Soldier Songs by David T. Little. Any observations about working on the music of a living composer, versus that of one who’s been dead for 182 years and is very unlikely to be in the room with you as you rehearse?

DAM: Because classical music is meant to last for centuries, I think there’s a process of natural selection that happens with vocal works. Among the pieces that merit a place in history, the only ones that will outlive their composers are those written well enough within the natural limits of the vocal instrument that they can be performed effectively by future generations of singers who have different levels of technical ability. Most vocal music within the standard repertoire passes this test, which is, obviously, why it has become the “standard repertoire.” Writing for the voice is damned difficult, and unless the composer is an accomplished singer him/herself, it helps to have an ongoing dialogue with the singers during rehearsals, so that the singer can more faithfully execute the composer’s vision, and so that the composer can make adjustments to better utilize the singer’s strengths.

In Little’s Soldier Songs

When the composer is alive, you get to have this dialogue — that’s the advantage. In Soldier Songs, this was key, because the story we were telling is contemporary, and David T. Little and I were able to get on exactly the same page about who my character is, what makes him tick, and how the music relates to this. On the other hand, the advantage of singing music by long-dead composers is that the music has made it through this “natural selection” process, so it will likely be easier to sing well.

WVM: It’s almost impossible to talk about your work as a singer without discussing your skill as an actor: you really dig into the dramatic psychology of your roles, and that’s one reason I find the prospect of your Winterreise so exciting. What do you see as the drama (or story) of the cycle, and what’s your approach to it?

DAM: It’s really just a breakup story — a John Cusack movie without the funny parts. I always enjoyed this piece from afar, but when it came to bringing it into my own world, I was pretty stumped at first. I haven’t been in a bad breakup for years, so I had to draw on the experience of one of my best friends who recently went through an epic breakup. There’s a lot of grieving involved, and many of the songs in this cycle are like little snapshots of the different stages of grieving.

At some point, I realized that, for me, this story is just the beginning of the protagonist’s journey. The direction in which he thought his life was going has changed dramatically, and now he has to learn more about himself and find his place in the world again. Who knows if he will — we don’t get to see that part. The story clicked for me when I realized that during every step of this painful journey, he’s learning and growing. This gives it a sense of direction. Who knows what may happen to him after song #24? He might go back to the Lindenbaum and hang himself, learn to be happy alone, or find someone else.

“Der Lindenbaum”
Video image by David Adam Moore©

WVM: When Winterreise fails to hit its mark with this audience member, it’s usually because the artists haven’t been able to shape the songs into a cohesive structure. Does your background in composition give you any helpful insights into the cycle? And, while we’re at it, does that background give you an edge in singing other works, as well?

DAM: I think a lot of singers make the mistake of doing what they think they’re supposed to do, rather than taking the responsibility to fill in the story’s blanks for themselves and making the piece their own. The part of the story the audience sees is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s the interpreter’s job to figure out what the rest of that iceberg is all about. The same idea can work from a musical perspective. The composer starts out with only the text, the story, and a vast array of possibilities for working this into a musical structure. The resulting piece is the tip of that iceberg. So, as I’m delving more deeply into a piece like Winterreise, I like to consider what other choices a composer might have made in shaping a melody or choosing a harmonic direction. This can help give a clearer idea of where the composer was coming from.

“More Life”: David’s impassioned account of this aria
pretty much justifies Eötvös’ entire opera.
With Ava Pine (left) as the Angel and Craig Verm.
Angels staging by David Gately for Fort Worth Opera, 2008.
Photo by Ellen Appel.

WVM: A great deal of your career thus far has been devoted to singing in English, and your ability to color text is superb. What challenges does the German text present?

DAM: German is always easier to pronounce well when it’s sloooow. Like English, German requires the singer to sort of rewrite the rhythm of each word to give each of its consonants adequate space to sound, so I have to work hard to keep from getting tripped up during fast sections of text. German is like a text-coloring playground, because the words are so onomatopoeic.

WVM: You’re also preparing a recording of Winterreise. When will it be released, and how can readers acquire it?

DAM: We’ll record it in New York in summer of 2011, and it should be released shortly thereafter. It will be released on GPR Records, and available via iTunes, Amazon, and on a limited-run CD via whichever retail outlets may have survived by then.

Winterreise: “Auf dem Flusse”
Video image by David Adam Moore©

Read more!

‘Howl’: Allen Ginsberg or James Franco?

The Renaissance man, limiting himself here
to the mere depiction of writing.
Personally, I found him more plausible as James Dean.

Several years ago, I was eating breakfast in a coffee shop in New York’s East Village when I realized that an older man was looking at me intently. This was not the gaze that said, “Hey, kid, you’ve got spinach on your teeth,” or “Where did you get that awful shirt?” No, this was the gaze that said, “Come away with me, beautiful youth! Inspire me, thrill me, make me your lover for an hour or a day, and I shall write a poem about you — or else give you fifty bucks and cab fare. It’s your call.”

Well, he got the “youth” part right, though he overestimated me in all the rest. But if the poet Allen Ginsberg looked anything like the actor James Franco (who portrays him in the new movie, Howl, opening this weekend), then my story might have ended differently.

The real-life Ginsberg, photographed in 1985,
the very year he cruised me on 2nd Avenue.

As it happened, however, I merely paid the check, went back to the table where my girlfriend was waiting, and went on with my life. Flattering (and almost unprecedented) though it was in those days for me to be checked out by anyone at all, to say nothing of a famous writer, I wasn’t even tempted to stray. So much for my shot at immortality.

Honestly, if you wanted to cast an Apatow actor as Ginsberg, you’d start with Seth Rogen and go no further. So it’s with a dose of skepticism that I’ll approach the theater where Howl is playing.

However, I’m always interested to see what James Franco does. He’s an awfully good actor, and (as a New York Times profile has confirmed) he’s consciously sought more interesting projects in recent years. If he ever plays another comic-book villain, I suspect it will be part of some elaborate prank on the rest of us.

Beyond that, I admire his questing mind and the way in which he’s turned, almost overnight, from college dropout to the man with the most graduate degrees in America. And while I haven’t yet sampled any of his writing or artwork, I appreciate his playful spirit.

Unlike most hotshot Hollywood actors, he really doesn’t seem to take himself, or much of anything else, too seriously. And who knows? Some day he may wind up creating art that we can take seriously.

That said, I’d rather be James Franco’s audience than his friend. With all the projects and interests and outlets this man pursues, how exhausting it must be to hang out with him!

Even Franco’s colleagues can’t keep up with him.
But my Ginsberg karma is gonna get me any day now.

Read more!

22 September 2010

Week of Mezzo-Madness, Part 1: ‘L’Italiana in Algeri’

Kiss me, I’m Italian!
Marco Vinco (Mustafà) woos Vivica Genaux (Isabella).
Photo: Opéra de Paris/Mirco Magliocca©

In the Mezzophile Hall of Fame, a place of honor is reserved for Gioacchino Rossini, who loved mezzo-sopranos even more than I do (and who married one, Isabella Colbran). In his operas, the mezzo is typically given something more to do than merely poisoning the leading lady — and in fact she’s quite likely to be the leading lady. Such is the case with the fizzy comedy L’Italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers), and a revival of Andrei Serban’s production from 2004 has returned Vivica Genaux to the Paris Opera in one of her most glamorous roles, opposite Lawrence Brownlee who, although not a mezzo-soprano, is a very exciting singer and a nice guy, besides.

Kicking off a week of Mezzomania, I attended the performance on 20 September.

Kiss me again! I’m still Italian!
On couch: Vinco, Jaël Azzaretti (Elvira), Lawrence Brownlee (Lindoro), Genaux;
standing, in turban: Alessandro Corbelli (Taddeo).
Photo: Opéra de Paris/Mirco Magliocca©

While Stendhal recommends generally that audiences focus on the “fresh, delightful” music in Rossini’s operas by paying no attention to the libretto and making up their own stories instead (advice that many European stage directors take too far), L’Italiana works beautifully on its own terms. Its libretto simultaneously plays off of stereotypes and mocks the risks of taking those stereotypes seriously. Thus we get a “Turk” who’s about as authentic as Rudolph Valentino’s Sheik and who’s absolutely mad to marry an “Italian” (because, you know, Italian women are so hot) — even if it means throwing over the perfectly lovely Turkish wife he’s already got.

Thwarting his scheme takes all the wiles of the Italian girl in question — and in the process, the gender conventions upended, since it’s the prima donna who outwits the bass and rescues the helpless tenor. These interweaving affirmations and reversals of expectation have been pleasing crowds for nearly 200 years.

I was Italian six years ago, too!
From the 2004 cast: Corbelli, Bruce Sledge, Simone Alaimo, Genaux
Photo: Opéra de Paris/Eric Mahoudeau©

Serban updates the plot to the present day without getting into politics, which is a good thing: use this opera to comment on strained relations between the Muslim world and the West, and everybody will go home miserable, which isn’t what Rossini wanted. Serban sees Mustafà (sung by Marco Vinco) as a cross between Qadaffi and a spoiled rock star, while Isabella (Genaux) is a scorching-hot, thoroughly modern Italian girl who doesn’t even bother to dress up in Turkish finery (even though it’s a plot point in the libretto). Our perceptions of Isabella (and of one another, perhaps) are about as realistic as a Varga girl; a cut-out of just such an image, with a striking resemblance to Genaux herself, slides on- and offstage from time to time on a pole.

We get idées réçues about the Middle East, too, with plenty of turbans, a Turkish bath, and some truly scary eunuchs. None of this explains why a gorilla kept scampering onstage — artfully portrayed by a mime but never fully integrated into the shenanigans. But Serban’s production never gets in the way of the most important business, notably including Alessandro Corbelli’s performance as Taddeo, the older man who’s so besotted with Isabella that he chases her halfway around the world and risks the wrath of the terrible Turk.*

The Gold Standard: Alessandro Corbelli
Photo by Alvaro Yanez©

I’m lucky enough to have seen Corbelli several times in the role of Taddeo, and he’s the gold standard. He’s got the face of a character actor from the Hollywood’s Golden Age, and he uses it as if he were knocking about in a Preston Sturges farce (not a bad match for this opera) even when he’s performing pull-ups and singing Rossini’s elaborate patter in a perfectly modulated baritone voice. Every detail of his characterization is perfectly judged, laugh-aloud funny yet tasteful, detailed, and attentive to text. I can only hope that younger baritones are studying his work, so that I can continue enjoying Italian comic opera when I’m in my dotage. It doesn’t get better than this.

When we first see Isabella’s lover, Lindoro, he’s Mustafà’s prisoner, condemned to hard labor. But — like all the men in this opera — he’s really in Isabella’s thrall, so that when he’s on a chain gang and supposed to be busting up rocks, he carves a statue of her instead. That this statue actually looks like Vivica Genaux is one of the luckier breaks in this production.

Definitely not a boy: Vivica Genaux
Photo by Harry Heleotis©

It must be difficult to find a standby for her, since Serban’s interpre­ta­tion of Isabella is so finely tailored to Genaux’s measure. Slinking around in an evening gown, with a long black wig (almost Bettie Page-style) that makes her look even slinkier, she’s almost comically sexy — which is of course Serban’s intention — and she exults in the character. (It’s probably a refreshing change of pace for a singer who so often has to play soldier-boys.)

I could have used more brio in “Pensa alla Patria,” in which Isabella exhorts her friends to stick with the plan in order to return home: after all, it’s part of the interplay of stereotype and tongue-in-cheek nation­al­ism that makes this opera soar, and some other Isabellas’ account of the aria has made me want to apply for Italian citizenship.

Elsewhere, however, Genaux digs deep into Isabella’s music, offering a fiery rainbow of interpretation: the dark timbre of her voice suggests Isabella’s indomitable temperament, while caressing phrases convey her seductive powers, and pyrotechnics testify to the character’s con­stant­ly plotting mind. The part affords her more variety than she finds in some of the Baroque composers that are her other specialty. Indeed, it was Genaux’s recording of Rossini arias that introduced me to this artist and first won me over, and it’s good to witness her back on ground that’s so consistently congenial to her: she seems to be enjoying herself tremendously, and her enthusiasm is contagious.

Have I mentioned that I’m Italian? Genaux & Brownlee
Photo: Opéra de Paris/Mirco Magliocca©

Brownlee is quickly becoming one of the most important tenors on the international scene, though my opportunities to hear him live have been few: in fact, this was the first time I’d seen him in a fully staged opera. Lindoro is a tough role in several ways: he has minimal lead-up to his first big aria, and thereafter, he’s seldom the focus of attention, mostly a pawn in the conflicting schemes of Mustafà (who wants to get rid of his wife by forcing Lindoro to marry her) and Isabella (who wants to rescue him).

Brownlee tossed off his solos, “Languir per un bella” and “Ah, come il cor di giubilo” (in Act II), with passionate character and apparent ease, his sound bright and ringing. A hardcore salsa-dancer, he’s excep­tion­al­ly nimble onstage, and he really got into the comedy of his big duet with Mustafà, as well as in the legendary septet that concludes Act I.

Keeping it real: Lawrence Brownlee
Photo by Dario Acosta©

It’s become tiresomely commonplace to compare Brownlee (favorably) with Another Rossini Tenor You’ve Heard So Much About — so I won’t do it. But what strikes me as remarkable about Brownlee is his ability to wed impeccable, almost otherworldly technique with a presence that’s completely human. (This comes across on recordings, too.) He may be singing a heroic warrior in extremis or a goofball in love, depending on the opera, but it’s always easy for the listener to identify with his character.

As Mustafà, Vinco started off a bit tentatively, but it didn’t take long for him to warm to the part, and soon he was strutting proudly and show­ing off the flexibility of his bass instrument. As his spurned wife, Elvira, Jaël Azzaretti revealed a bright voice and lively physicality: she is the first soprano I’ve seen who can (and does) strike yoga poses while singing coloratura. Riccardo Novaro proved an amiable, somewhat small-scale Haly; Cornelia Oncioiu as Zulma gave scant evidence of dramatic engagement, though she sang with admirable warmth.

Yep, still Italian.
From the 2004 cast, Bruce Sledge, Genaux, Simone Alaimo, and Corbelli
Photo: Opéra de Paris/Eric Mahoudeau©

Seated in the front row (!), I wasn’t in an ideal position with respect to the voices: I could see the singers projecting over my head and right past me into the auditorium, while none of their voices carried very strongly to the spot where I keep my ears. I was in an ideal position to admire the work of the orchestra, under conductor Maurizio Benini, who muttered “Chuk-a-chuk-a-chuk-a” in time with the music through­out both acts. The energy and imagination of Rossini’s orchestrations are always a marvel, and yet more so when you see that those delightful effects on the flute (for example) are assigned to just one musician.

Rossini would have approved, I think, of Benini’s evident enjoyment in the music, and I know he’d have approved of the musicians themselves, since the women of the orchestra of the Opéra de Paris are, without exception, very pretty. Surely this makes the music sound better, and yet what a pity that most people in the audience never get the chance to appre­ciate this additional contribution to the atmosphere of beauty and pleasure on hand.

Rossini himself

*NOTE: The only reason Isabella has come to Algiers is to rescue her boyfriend, Lindoro, and while she exploits Taddeo’s help, she never gives him any hope of winning her heart. Taddeo persists, never­the­less. It’s one of the most curious roles in opera, extraneous to the plot, really — we’ve already got one hapless suitor to laugh at, in the person of Mustafà, and Isabella doesn’t really need Taddeo in order to execute her plans. But he’s good company. Cuckolded from the get-go and disguised as Isabella’s uncle, Taddeo is like Dr. Schön and Schigolch in one person — only funny.

Read more!

21 September 2010

Claude Chabrol

Huppert and Chabrol
(Please note the matching outfits.)

The recent death of French director Claude Chabrol has given rise to a number of tributes and retrospectives of his films, both in repertory cinemas (because we have those here in France) and on television. This is helpful, because his output was vast: although I’ve seen much of his work, I feel as if I’ve only scratched the surface.

Last night, his film Merci pour le chocolat (2000) was on TV, and I caught a tiny detail that gives you a good idea of Chabrol’s sly sense of humor. In the film, a wealthy Swiss woman (Isabelle Huppert, Chabrol’s principal muse in recent years) becomes convinced that her teenage stepson (Rodolphe Pauly) is not in fact her husband’s child. Was he switched at birth with Jeanne (Anna Mouglalis), a young pianist who seems so much more like the stepchild Huppert should have had? And if so, what should Mom do about it? Would poison provide the answer? And would a cup of hot chocolate be the place to put it?

Probably not the ideal Mothers Day gift:
Pauly and Huppert in a scene from the film.

In addition to being an unsparing critic of the bourgeoisie, Chabrol was an avid student of Hitchcock, and no one in France has known better how to play suspense. He could leave you squirming for the entire length of a movie, then surprise you at the end. So we watch as Huppert menaces (or does not menace) her son (who may not be her son).

At one point, toward the end of the film, after Pauly has consumed several cups of chocolate, and after Huppert has accidentally (or on purpose) injured him, we see him lying in his bedroom, watching TV. Mom comes in to check on him. And as they talk, the camera moves around the room. There, by the television set, stands a doll, offering silent warning as to what may (possibly) happen next.

Oh, my God, she’s going to kill Kenny! You bastards!

And that, dear readers, is a glimpse of Claude Chabrol’s humor. Blink, and you’ll miss it — and Chabrol has a few more surprises in store for you before the picture is done. But it’s one more reason I’m looking forward to reacquainting myself with his feisty, unpredictable oeuvre.

Read more!