30 December 2012

Fencers Make Good Neighbors

Tenor Matthew Polenzani: Unfazed by a foil.

There’s no swordplay in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, but two of the leads in the Metropolitan Opera’s first production of the work — opening New Year’s Eve — have crossed swords before. As Romeo and Tybalt in Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Joyce DiDonato and Matthew Polenzani engaged in a bit of derring-do that inspired me to write the following article for OPERA NEWS three years ago — only to discover that the most unkindest cut of all is that which comes from editors with space limitations. So, for those who wonder how singers manage stage combat, I present the article in full.
We’ve seen it all before. The tenor and the baritone can tolerate no more. As tempers flare and voices rise, swords are drawn. And then — nothing. Two or three whacks, and they run off in opposite directions. You’ve seen more convincing swordfights on the playground.

Stage combat, especially swordplay, is one of the most frequently disappointing features of opera, and yet it seems churlish to mention it. After all, singers already meet the challenges of musicianship and acting, sometimes waltzing, too. Now we’re asking for another skill?

But swordplay is a fact of life in Opera World. As tenor Matthew Polenzani puts it, “Certain pieces in the repertory lend themselves to this sort of thing. And that’s the sort of thing I sing.” He estimates that he’s called on to parry and thrust in “a third to a half” of the operas he performs, including Lucia di Lammermoor, Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, and much of Mozart. “Even in something like Don Giovanni,” he says, “I have occasionally crossed swords with Giovanni.”

I had the chance to see Polenzani’s swordsmanship in action in Robert Carsen’s production of I Capuleti e i Montecchi at Paris Opera, in 2008. Surrounded not only by a team of non-singing professional fencers but also by mezzo Joyce DiDonato (swashbuckling up a storm as Romeo — really, she may have enjoyed that sword too much), Polenzani sounded gorgeous yet seemed less than fully at ease with his épée. Why would he be, I wondered, when he’s got so much else to do in this opera? I set out to talk to him about the conflicting challenges of singing and swordplay, and it turns out that he’s unfazed by a foil.

Matthew Polenzani and Joyce DiDonato rehearse
Maria Stuarda at the Met.

“Growing up and in young-artist programs — even when you’re singing in choruses — there are big fight scenes,” he says. “You grow up doing it. You have to learn how, how to be safe, how to thrust a sword at somebody to make it look, from an audience standpoint, as if you’re jabbing at their heart, though you’re really jabbing at the upper left arm.

“If you’re doing an overhand smash,” Polenzani continues, almost as if he were giving me a lesson over the telephone, “you can do it from the outside shoulder, but from the audience point of view, it looks like it’s going to land on the head. You can keep your colleagues safe and at the same time lend an air of verisimilitude to the proceedings.”

Verisimilitude is the key, the same goal that drives the vast majority of today’s singers to hone their acting abilities and to watch their figures. In generations past, audiences probably didn’t care whether Enrico Caruso or Jussi Bjoerling could handle a rapier, or whether they looked and acted plausibly heroic. Today’s audiences demand realism. “And a sword helps you identify with your character,” Polenzani insists.

“Character is a huge part of what we do,” he explains. “I suppose if you’re not as interested in the people that you’re playing, [swordplay] could seem like a pain, but you have to deal with it because it’s part and parcel with this genre of opera. It can be a little scary, but it’s fun to do. Anger is one of those emotions that is very easy to tap into, and so it helps you feel more like you are really the person who is singing. This is always the battle anyway, just to try and be as much Romeo or as much Edgardo or as much Tebaldo as you possibly can be, so that the audience, their belief is completely suspended. I love doing it!”

Polenzani began to study stage combat while at the Yale School of Music, one of a number of American conservatories and artist programs that now see fight choreography as an important part of a young singer’s training. “We were taking lessons in how to move our feet,” the tenor recalls, “and how to roll, how to hit the ground, all those things, not just with swords. So you can make a wrestling-match look real, how to throw a punch, how to slap somebody and make a sound but not hurt them.”

A fight choreographer and stage director, Dale Girard says most singers don’t have fight training; however, he adds, the same is true of actors in spoken theater. “I’ll show up for a production of Three Musketeers in a theater company,” he says, “and find that most of the people who are in a swordfight have limited training. I also find in opera, some singers have had no training, some have had some training. It’s kind of a crapshoot.”

Dale Girard with students at the University of North Carolina
School of the Arts.

Girard has worked at the Met (“They have a phenomenal armory”) on its latest production of Roméo et Juliette and at regional companies from Vancouver to Fort Worth. As a teacher, he’s worked with young-artist programs, at Yale (where Polenzani was his student) and the Hart School, and he’s now Director of Stage Combat Studies at North Carolina School of the Arts. (What’s more, he does stuntwork for films.) He has an advantage when it comes to opera, he says, because on one of those Roméos, he wound up marrying the Stéphano, mezzo Jeanine Hawley.

“Opera singers are usually really gung-ho,” Girard says, “because they want the show to rock and roll. They want a strong dramatic presentation, as well — they got into [opera] because they love it. You’re trying to make it look good, to let the music tell the story and make sure they’re ready to sing at the end of the piece. Don José and Carmen have to fight, Donna Anna and Don Giovanni have to fight, and still be able to sing…. If you’re doing Shakespeare, they don’t care if you’re out of breath at the end of the fight. In fact, a lot of those scenes have fractured prose at the end, to indicate that you’re out of breath. You can wind an actor in theater, but in opera, they need to act winded.”

While Polenzani reminds me that composers typically avoid requiring an artist to sing and fight simultaneously, Girard identifies other important challenges in effective fight choreography for opera. “So many of the things that happen in a fight are preconditioned responses,” Girard says. “Physical activity, especially in the States or Western culture, is usually accompanied by tension. You go into the gym, and they’re groaning, trashing their voices to help them lift — but your vocal cords will not help you lift more weight!

“If you rehearse the breath, work with the artist to make sure they are vocally free and tension isn’t being practiced — a lot of the time, you’re unaware that you’re clenching, if you’re not phonating. That’s just not productive. So if we can address that early, and make sure that the fight — it could be completely safe and no one gets hurt, and you could still damage the voice. Knowing that from the beginning, rehearsing it and checking with the singers, helps avoid the problem,” Girard says, adding, “You have years of conditioning to tense up in physical activity.”

However, he finds that singers, more than actors, possess a “kinesthetic awareness. Their ability to sense and manipulate their vocal instrument translates into the ability to use their bodies effectively. Sometimes they haven’t practiced it, but that sensitivity of the physical instrument that comes from the vocal instrument does come out.”

Though Girard agrees that characters in opera seldom have to sing and fight simultaneously, the line is sometimes fine. “Escamillo sings right after the fight with Don José,” he says. “The uncut piece of score is a good chunk of fight music, but even trimmed down, it’s only two or three bars afterwards when Escamillo has to sing.”

That limits the possibilities for combat — or at least for Escamillo to defend himself. Beyond breath, though, a fight choreographer has extra concerns in opera. The singers have to be able to see the conductor, for example. “And the maestro has a lot to say on tempo and rhythm,” which naturally has an effect on how a fight is staged. Moreover, if the conductor believes there’s a potential risk, “I’ve had them go, ‘I like it, let’s change it now, I have a fear of this.’”

But it’s music that drew Girard to opera. “I just found that the sense of having a full orchestra supporting and playing your fight, was the closest you could get to cinema,” he says. “All the fight music was so beautiful, deep, and rich.” And he speaks admiringly of the Met’s Roméo et Juliette cast — as fighting actors.

“There are stigmas that go on about the Met in the theater community,” he says, “but we’re fighting on a raked stage that’s revolving. The singers were completely open to it, because each step of the way, their concerns were addressed. They were part of the collaborative process.”

Comparing opera to its theatrical antecedents, Girard observes, “You do tend to see more violence in opera than you do in Classical theater. Contemporary theater has gotten bloody — Lieutenant of Inishmore, you’ve got gunfights onstage and people’s heads exploding. That’s American theater right there. I don’t think you’ve gotten quite that far in opera.”

He thinks this over. “But I just worked on Tosca at Chautauqua. You’ve got guns going off, a stabbing, and a woman jumping off a building — maybe theater’s catching up on opera!”

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19 December 2012

Maria, Regina di Scozia

J-DiD as M-Stu.

Even as I indulge in Susan Graham’s soon-to-be-legendary performances as Dido, Queen of Carthage, in Berlioz’s Les Troyens at the Metropolitan Opera (now playing), I’m getting psyched for Joyce DiDonato’s Mary, Queen of Scots. Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda opens at the Met on New Year’s Eve, and it’s a company premiere. With Joyce’s Drama Queen mojo pumping these days, these performances should be nothing short of spectacular.

And there’s an added bonus, almost as exciting (at least to bel canto fans like me) as the singing itself. Even Donizetti operas could be longer than they are, and Maria Stuarda is no exception. I’ve learned that the Met’s production restores a final scene, long believed to be lost, to a libretto by Monte Pitone. By special arrangement, I’m pleased to present the text now.

Drama Queen.

Maria has just finished her prayer. There is a knock at the door.

ASSASSIN: Tu sei Maria, Regina di Scozia?

MARY: Son’ io!

ASSASSIN: T’ammazerò!

MARY: Aiiii! Aiiiii!!!

The ASSASSIN chases MARY around the stage, beating her with a stick and throwing dishes and furniture at her. There are thumps, bangs, slaps, pneumatic drilling, sawing, flogging, shooting, all interlaced with Mary's screams.

MARY: Aiiiii!!! Aiiiiiiii!! Soccorso!!!

Under this furious assault, MARY collapses on the floor. Silence. Then…

ASSASSIN: Penso che sia morta!

MARY: Non sono!

MARY rises to her feet and resumes running around the room, while the ASSASSIN chases her. More mayhem.

As the curtain falls, Pinkerton returns, then realizes he’s in the wrong opera, and the Penguin on the Telly explodes.


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15 December 2012

Bad Breakups from Berlioz and Schubert

Susan Graham and Marcello Giordani at the Met.

So your boyfriend says, “Listen, I really care about you, but God has other plans for me, which I know because the voices in my head are telling me to go away now.” Naturally, you’re so surprised that you can’t even answer a ludicrous thing like that. So he leaves.

That should be the end of it, but instead, you chase after him, plead and threaten, humiliate yourself in front of all his friends and your friends, quit your job, destroy every single present he ever gave you, and finally kill yourself. Because it’s an opera!

Or say that your girlfriend decides she’s Just Not That Into You and marries somebody else. Every single thing you see reminds you of how miserable she has made you. This water? It’s like your tears! Those crows? They’re just waiting to pick at your loveless, lifeless body! That mailman? He has nothing for you! This weathervane? Yes, even the weathervane is depressing you. Because it’s Lieder singing!

Instead of going to the doctor and getting a prescription for antidepressants, you find an organ-grinder and listen to him until you can’t take it any more (because you couldn’t find a bagpiper!), and finally you kill yourself. Because it’s a Lieder Cycle!

I spent much of my Monday coping with other people’s breakups, and let me tell you, it was fun. You should definitely try it sometime. Because it’s cathartic!

David Adam Moore in Brooklyn.

One great thing about being a fan is that your totem singer can lead you places you didn’t expect, and show you things you didn’t know your life depends on. Susan Graham led me deeper into Berlioz. Before she recorded his Les Nuits d’été, I really didn’t think there was any need for anybody ever to sing the piece again, because Régine Crespin had sung it perfectly, on an essential recording that all people should own. Period.

Then Susan found stuff in that music that even Crespin hadn’t found. So her recording is essential, too, and what’s more, it’s opened me up to listening to other people’s interpretations, to hear what they find. José Van Dam. Joyce DiDonato. David Daniels. Anne Sofie von Otter. Gabriel Bacquier. They’ve all got something to say — and now I know better how to listen.

If Susan hadn’t taken me by the ear and led me into Berlioz, I would have missed her performances in Les Troyens. I’d have missed John Eliot Gardiner’s conducting when she sang this opera in Paris, at the Châtelet in 2003. Gardiner is an early-instrument buff who raided museums in order to get antique brass instruments like those that Adolphe Saxe created especially for Berlioz, who wrote (among other things) for this opera a fanfare that’s an important, recurring musical theme. Suddenly I was transported to an entirely different world, hearing sounds I’d never heard before — and that, I realized, was just what Berlioz wanted.

Susan at the Châtelet.
One of the most powerful performances I have ever witnessed.

Susan has returned to the role of Dido: a revival of Francesca Zambello’s production from 2003 opened on Thursday night at the Met. I saw the final dress rehearsal, and of course nobody is supposed to pass critical judgment on a rehearsal. I will venture to say that Susan’s interpretation is, if anything, deeper than it was nine years ago, boldly acted, thrillingly sung, and unbelievably sexy. You should see her rock Dido’s purple gown.

Another great thing about being a fan is that sometimes you get to feel really, really smart. The singer says, “I’m going to perform such and such,” and you say, “That’s a perfect fit for you,” and then he sings it, and you were right. Now aren’t you the clever one?

When David Adam Moore told me that he was going to tackle Schubert’s Winterreise, I knew he’d come up with something terrific. He’s mature enough to dig into the melancholy of the verse without sounding like a tiresome kid (which is, let’s face it, exactly what the narrator of the Winterreise would be if you ever met him in a bar). His voice is perfectly suited to the music: it’s warm, centered, produced with ease and conversational directness. He never sings at anybody. Best of all, David is still young enough that I can be confident he’ll be able to continue his explorations of the Winter Journey for years to come, continue to discover new phrases and new feelings, continue to make this piece come alive. [My interview with David on the occasion of his first Winterreise, two years ago, can be found here.]

And I was right. Performing in a tiny venue somewhere in what, everybody assured me, is called Park Slope, Brooklyn, David more than lived up to my expectations. I’d say he aced it — except that, as I say, I know he’s going to keep singing the Winterreise and getting better and better. To his A+ he’ll add extra pluses.

Because David is a polymath who also composes and creates video art (and so on, and so on), he’s “staged” this Winterreise with a fluid series of videos that isolate and distill the images discussed in the poetry. Just as the Narrator is completely absorbed in his melancholy, so David is completely absorbed in the images: he wears a white shirt and trousers so that he becomes a part of the screen (or, in this case, the wall) onto which the video is projected.

There’s some beautiful stuff here, most notably a sequence in which we see what the Narrator remembers of his lover lying in bed. David reaches out his hand to touch an image that is no longer flesh. Gorgeous. And yet I’m hoping that, from time to time, he’ll perform the Winterreise without the video, too.

The texts of the Winterreise are uncanny: somehow the poet has latched onto German vocabulary that’s about 80 percent cognates for English vocabulary, and with a printed or projected text, it’s easy for an educated listener to follow along. Add to that David’s expressive gifts, and he can make us see the images even when he hasn’t got a video projector.

Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise: it’s a good thing to follow a musician — to be a fan. A singer who’s already demonstrated an ability to communicate with you, is going to be able to help you understand better the things she’s discovered in the music. You’ll learn more, and she’ll point you in other directions, too, that you can explore on your own or with other artists. And by sharing the experiences in the music — even really bad breakups — you come out wiser, stronger, richer.

Also, it helps if the singer went to high school in Texas.

Paradoxically, David performed on the most tropical night in the history of Decembers in the Northern Hemisphere.

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08 December 2012

Progress Report 19: So Glad We Had This Time Together

A mutual appreciation society.

“I just want to quell all those rumors about me and George Clooney!”

That, according to Carol Burnett, is why she agreed to an interview for the authorized biography of Madeline Kahn (which, as you may have noticed, I’m writing). We spoke by phone this week about Harvey Korman, about The Carol Burnett Show, and about the episode in which Madeline appeared in 1976. I can’t say much here about what she told me — I have to save something to make you want to buy the book, don’t I? But it’s an occasion to reflect on a performer and a show that meant a lot to me — and to Madeline, and I dare say to you, too.

Madeline’s contribution to the episode (“One of my favorites,” Carol said, as she proceeded to quote from it, 36 years later) consisted of a “Family” sketch, in which she played a pretentious actress trying to rehearse with poor Eunice; a chat with Carol and a duet, “Friend”; and a delirious send-up of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, in which Madeline and Harvey warble “I Always Used to Oooh” in a “film clip” from a spoof of That’s Entertainment.

Right there, you get a sense of why the episode, and the show itself, made an indelible impression on this viewer. For instance, when Madeline’s character exhorts Eunice to concentrate, she intones, “In our circles, in our circles!” For the duration of my (limited, long-ago) experience working in theater, not one production in school, off-off-Broadway or on-Broadway went by without somebody’s quoting that line in rehearsal.

Mavis Danton (Madeline) rehearses with Eunice Higgins (Carol).

What’s more, The Carol Burnett Show reliably delivered at least one gag per week that left me helpless with laughter on the floor — and in this particular episode, it comes during Carol’s contribution to the That’s Entertainment parody, in which she performs an Esther Williams-style routine in a retro residential swimming pool strewn with plastic water lilies. Singing even when she’s underwater (at which point she sort of gargles the notes) and when water gets in her mouth (at which point she spits), tossing aside the flowers when they get in her way, Carol clowns around much the way any kid clowns in a pool — “Look at me, I’m Esther Williams!” — especially a movie-mad kid, like the one Carol was, or the one I was.

It’s that playfulness that makes so much of The Carol Burnett Show not only memorable but also approachable. We’ve all done silly stuff like this, though few if any of us goofed around in a way that might be entertaining to anybody but ourselves. I’ve seen the proof more times than I care to count at summer-camp jamborees and school talent shows, when would-be Carols and Harveys wore out their welcome almost before they began. The comedy on The Carol Burnett Show could be very broad, often campy. How did Carol know when to stop while it was still funny? “Instinct,” she told me.

The camaraderie among her core players — Vicki Lawrence, Harvey Korman, Tim Conway, Lyle Waggoner — extended to guest stars and even to the audience. We had a good time watching them because we sensed that they were having a good time. (Something that seemed to be confirmed every time Tim Conway made Harvey Korman crack up.) In talking with Carol, I found myself referring to Korman simply as Harvey, and now I’m writing about her as Carol, as if I’d known them, which I didn’t, or as if I’d grown up with them, which in a very limited sense, I did, actually.

Not exactly the “Indian Love Call”: Harvey and Madeline.

Together they demolished classic films I hadn’t seen yet. As a kid, I barely knew who Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were: when it came time for me to see Now Voyager and Mildred Pierce, I had to leave the movie theater, because I was laughing so hard, remembering Carol’s parodies. For this viewer, she did to old movies what MAD Magazine did to the great films of the 1970s, and what Anna Russell did to Wagner.

And yet, in every case, the more I’ve learned about the source material, the more I’ve come to appreciate the care with which it was spoofed, and the artistry required to give an audience something to laugh about, no matter how little or how much background knowledge they possessed. You didn’t have to know anything about Gone with the Wind (though I did, by the time Carol got to it) in order to find “Went with the Wind” hilarious. Each week, jokes aimed high and low, and hit their marks. That’s a rare gift.

Even in their broadest gestures, Carol’s imitations of the great screen goddesses were so keen — and yet so affectionate — that the ladies themselves loved them. Joan Crawford regularly watched the show and wrote Carol a fan letter after “Mildred Fierce.” Gloria Swanson was so smitten with Carol’s demented “Nora Desmond” character that she guest-starred on The Carol Burnett Show — whereupon the “Nora” character was retired, much to my disappointment. I underscore: at the time, I’d never seen Sunset Boulevard. I just thought Carol’s Nora was funny.

Always ready for her close-up: Carol as Nora.

As a result, Carol Burnett’s movie parodies were an entryway to my exploration of an art form — in very much the same way that Anna Russell eased me into Wagner while reminding me not to take the music (or the music criticism) too seriously. The very clear lesson from both ladies was, no matter how brilliant this stuff is, we should have fun. At the same time, the bitter conflict between Eunice and Mama taught me that the best comedy has its foundation in pain.

Television creates an artificial intimacy with the viewer, and that can be tough for performers, and even for news anchors. I’m sure there are moments when Carol really doesn’t want to hear how much complete strangers love her, how much she influenced them, how much she taught them. And in talking with her the other day, I kept all of those things to myself — though they were right there, ready to be said and very sincerely felt.

But at all times during our conversation, Carol Burnett was gracious, open, and funny as hell. In short, exactly the person I hoped she would be. I add her to the list of boyhood idols with whom I’ve been able to communicate, as a result of Madeline Kahn’s biography: Lily Tomlin, Bill Cosby, Betty Aberlin, to name a few. These opportunities inspire in me a gratitude I can’t quite express — though I suppose I’ve just tried.

“I saw it in the window and I just couldn’t resist!”

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06 December 2012

Eccomi in Italiano!

I am pleased to announce that I have begun contributing to the Italian online magazine GBOpera: the first of my reports have been posted, in English and in Italian translation.

My pleasure is nearly as great when I announce that I am not required to write in Italian: the editors translate my work for me. Self-taught in Italian, I can get through the day-to-day routines of ordering food and going to museums; I can manage a cocktail party conversation with somewhat less élan, though it helps immensely a) if I’ve had a glass or two of wine; and b) if the person to whom I am speaking is flirting with me. Just saying. And I can read an opera libretto, so long as there’s a dizionario nearby.

However, my written Italian would be an embarrassment to just about everybody, something on the order of “See Spot Run”:

“Vedi, Joyce canta! Canta, Joyce, canta! Canta canta canta! Joyce canta bene. Fine.

I love this picture of Joyce beyond my power to describe
— in any language.
Carnegie Hall photos by Steve J. Sherman.©

Really, it’s a gift to all of us that somebody else is putting all this into Italian. But I must say that I sound wonderfully sophisticated and sexy when I read the texts aloud, and you can try it yourself by following these links. (If you’d prefer simply to read the English text, scroll to the end of the review and there’s another link.)

For my review of the Richard Tucker Foundation Gala (Avery Fisher Hall, November 11, 2012), click here.

For my review of Joyce DiDonato’s “Drama Queens” concert with Il Complesso Barocco (Carnegie Hall, November 18, 2012), click here.

And be sure to check GBOpera.it regularly for my latest reports — and all kinds of reviews, interviews, and cool stuff!

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