Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Thomas Hampson / Marilyn Horne

American Song, the Thomas Hampson recital at Carnegie Hall last Thursday was a critical and popular success. It happened on the nineteenth of the month, that is, two days after Marilyn Horne's birthday. Two days after the concert itself, an audio capture of the event appeared posted on a Usenet group. The great baritone performed some of the best songs by Barber, Ives, Rorem, Thompson, and others. It was a carefully selected group of compositions, chosen and presented by Mr. Hampson with a didactic tone that seemed to work most of the time. At the conclusion of the show he offered two encores of incredible beauty: Stephen Foster's well-known "Beautiful Dreamer," and Haydn Wood's poignant "Roses of Picardy." It was towards the end of the program, right before he sang the Stephen Foster song that Mr. Hampson turned to the audience (as he did throughout the concert to explain and complain -- more about that later) and dedicated the Foster song to Marilyn Horne for her birthday. On the subject of American song, all singers owe a debt of gratitude to Marilyn Horne. Her album "Beautiful Dreamer, The Great American Songbook" with the English Chamber Orchestra under the great Carl Davis has done a lot to promote popular, serious American music. The fact that a day before Mr. Hampson's concert it was reported that the legendary mezzo-soprano was diagnosed with localized pancreatic cancer, added to the poignancy of Mr. Hampson's dedication. I'm not sure if Marilyn Horne was present at Carnegie Hall, but a friend who was at the concert told me that Mr. Hampson turned to the side when he dedicated the song, seemingly talking directly to someone.

According to Anne Midgette, in the New York Times, "there was a sense of unruliness in the public from the start, when the first song was delayed by an audience member walking around the auditorium, and it continued with applause in the middle of sets that Mr. Hampson tried to quell, tactfully, repeatedly and unsuccessfully." Perhaps, the fact that Mr. Hampson talked a lot between numbers led to this kind of audience behavior. For instance, after he finished Walter Damrosch's setting of the poem "Danny Deever" in which a soldier is executed, Mr. Hampson said to the audience "That was Teddy Roosevelt's favorite song!" Was that random piece of trivia really necessary? It not only brought on laughter, but a woman in the audience stood up and interrupted Mr. Hampson by asking him why the soldier was executed.

I will end this report about the concert by once again quoting the beginning of Ms. Midgette's review: "A wave of laughter greeted the song's last line, and from the Carnegie Hall stage, the baritone Thomas Hampson looked at the crowd in bemusement. "All over the country they laugh at that!" he said. His perplexity was understandable. The text was Edward Arlington Robinson's poem "Richard Cory," set to music by John Duke. It describes a handsome, wealthy man who is the envy of his community. In the abrupt final line, this favored child of fortune "went home and put a bullet through his head." Wry, bitter, unsettling: yes. But funny?"

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Discovering Ugetsu Monogatari

This weekend I discovered one of the masterpieces of the Japanese cinema: Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu Monogatari. I had never seen this film, although I have known of its existence since the summer of 1977 when I first discovered foreign films. Ugetsu, with its contemplative theme of careless love, its fluid structure, and its subtle supernatural story is not the easiest of films, especially when compared to the more dynamic, more "American" cinema of Akira Kurosawa -- the director of The Seven Samurai, Rashomon, and Yojimbo. I'm glad that it took me all these years to get to the movie, since I don't think I would have liked it when I was a teen discovering Kurosawa's masterpieces. I probably would have found Mizoguchi's work vague, and perhaps boring. This is one of those movies that always ends up on the top ten lists of the greatest films ever made from critics from all over the world. I think I agree with these critics. The Criterion Collection has finally issued the film in a wonderful DVD version which, again, makes me glad that I waited to see it. Needless to say, this pressing from an original fine-grain 35mm print looks superb. You will enjoy this DVD release, with its amazing visual, its fine commentary and the well-made documentary about director Mizoguchi. So, if you are ready to step further beyond the films of Akira Kurosawa, you should give Ugetsu a try. I am sure that you will find it mesmerizing and totally unforgettable.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Requiem for Sweeney Todd

The skeletal remains of Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street are on view eight times a week at the Eugene O'Neill theater. Stephen Sondheim's big operatic musical has been re-orchestrated, turned into a chamber work, and removed from traditional Victorian London. The setting of the work is now a room in an insane asylum (filled with Victoriana bric-a-brac) and populated with Michael Cerveris, Patti LuPone and a cast of eight incredibly talented singing actors and musicians. The result is a production that exasperates as often as it delights.

Most of the things that I liked about the original production (with Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou) are gone: the big orchestra, the big sets, and the big climaxes. In 1979, Hal Prince turned Sondheim's work into an unforgettable commentary on the Industrial Revolution's effects on the common man. It was a huge spectacle that catapulted Sondheim's work into the level of opera, took home Tony Awards for its creators and stars, and assured Sondheim's place in the pantheon of immortals. I remember falling in love with the work instantly (right from the first couple of bars from the organ) when I first heard it. My two visits to the original production at the then Uris Theater (now the Gershwin) were simply unforgettable theatrical evenings.

This production is a totally different experience, and if you have seen this work before this production will really challenge you. In fact, in order to appreciate the show's current run one has to be somewhat familiar with the work. If you are, then you will be more accepting of the production's conceits. The staging by British director John Doyle does not help the run-of-the-mill theatergoer or the neophyte to the work. Since everything takes place in one room, the audience is forced to imagine the various settings where the story takes place (streets, tonsorial parlor, bakehouse) and try to piece the story together from the lyrics and dialogue, which are beautifully enunciated by the cast. The short list of props includes a macabre black coffin, a ladder, and a symbolic tiny white baby coffin that Michael Cerveris clutches like the distant memory of his lost wife and child.

The most surprising and effective aspect of this production is the fact that the actors act, sing, and play all the musical instruments. This triple threat tour-de-force is something to behold, and it is quite surprising to hear how good they all are performing their various duties. Many of the actors play more than one instrument throughout the course of the show, and the new orchestrations are intelligent and quite lush. I do wish they would have gotten some older looking, drabier instruments, though. Patti LuPone's tuba is way too shiny, and Michael Cerveris' guitar is way too cheerful, colorful, and modern looking for this production.

Speaking of Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone: they are very talented performers, and they are quite good in the roles of Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett. With his bald head, leather jacket, and pale make-up, and her Louise Brooks-like hair and torn fishnet stockings, they both look like escapees from a German Expressionist side-show. Overall, the singing is excellent from the leads and from everyone in the cast; likewise, the acting is superb. In the roles of Johanna and Anthony, Lauren Molina and Benjamin Magnuson are both making their Broadway debuts, and they are very memorable in their pivotal parts. Again, the same can be said of all ten members of the cast. This is a very tight ensemble, and I urge you to see the production because of this reason. However, if you don't know the work, make sure that at least you listen to it and get your bearings before you go. It will prove to be a less abstract, more enjoyable experience if you prepare.

I predict many Tonys for this production, so catch it before it closes. Sondheim's works, as a rule, don't last too long on Broadway, and it will be a shame if you miss this unusual version of one of our very own musical treasures.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Astrid Varnay Remembers Birgit Nilsson

The following letter was posted on the Internet newsgroup It is a personal note from soprano Astrid Varnay rememembering her friend and colleague Birgit Nilsson. Astrid Varnay was one of the great Brünnhildes of our time, and a staple at Bayreuth during the post-war Wieland Wagner years. Here at the MET I was fortunate to hear her live in the cast of the MET's premiere of Kurt Weill's The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Here is her note:

Birgit Nilsson -- A Remembrance

Even with our helmets on, we never locked horns.

There were simply too many bonds that linked us inseparably: born in the same country - Sweden – under the same sign - Taurus - in the spring of the same year –1918. I got here first, on April 25th as the daughter of visiting Hungarian singers in Stockholm and she showed up on May 17th down the road a piece on her parents’ farm in Västra Karup in Skåne. She never stopped ribbing me about the fact that I arrived a couple of weeks before she did.

Once, after I had moved from Elektra to Klytämnestra, while she continued in the title role, I was on my way to a rehearsal, when behind me on the sidewalk I heard an abrasively cranky child whining incessantly "Mommy, mommy..." When I finally decided I could ignore this no more and turned around in exasperation to beg the parent to pay a little attention to the yammering kid, I realized that the "brat" was my friend Birgit. I did get her back, though. Years later on one of our many phone calls I feigned one of those very formal secretarial voices and inquired if I might speak to Madame Nilsson – when she took the bait and said: "This is she speaking," I switched to my own voice and said "It’s your mother!" It became an identifying mark for our many conversations over the years.

We were colleagues, not rivals. There was never any jealousy, although perhaps occasional, and I hope pardonably small surges of envy emerged on both sides. I coveted those effortless clarion high C’s, and she confessed that she would have enjoyed having some of my dramatic skills, although hers could be fairly incendiary. Actually we didn’t share that many roles. Apart from three or four pillars of both careers: Brünnhilde, Isolde, Fidelio and the aforementioned Elektra, our repertoires pretty much went their own ways. She never sang Ortrud, and I wouldn’t have touched Turandot with a Yang-Tse barge pole. And we loved singing together: Those performances and the joy of our collaboration forged a friendship that will remain affixed in my heart forever.

A talent like Birgit’s comes along – if you’re lucky – perhaps once in a lifetime. How fortunately we are that it happened in our lifetime. A friend and colleague like that is even rarer, and it was a blessing for me to have worked with her.

I’ll miss her greatly.

Astrid Varnay

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Birgit Nilsson: NY Times Bernard Holland Article

The New York Times

January 12, 2006
Birgit Nilsson, Soprano Legend Who Tamed Wagner, Dies at 87

Birgit Nilsson, the Swedish soprano with a voice of impeccable trueness and impregnable stamina, died on Dec. 25 in Vastra Karup, the village where she was born, the Stockholm newspaper Svenska Dagbladet reported yesterday. She was 87.

A funeral was held yesterday at a church in her town, the presiding vicar, Fredrik Westerlund, told The Associated Press.

Ms. Nilsson made so strong an imprint on a number of roles that her name came to be identified with a repertory, the "Nilsson repertory," and it was a broad one. She sang the operas of Richard Strauss and made a specialty of Puccini's "Turandot," but it was Wagner who served her career and whom she served as no other soprano since the days of Kirsten Flagstad.

A big, blunt woman with a wicked sense of humor, Ms. Nilsson brooked no interference from Wagner's powerful and eventful orchestra writing. When she sang Isolde or Brünnhilde, her voice pierced through and climbed above it. Her performances took on more pathos as the years went by, but one remembers her sound more for its muscularity, accuracy and sheer joy of singing under the most trying circumstances.

Her long career at the Bayreuth Festival and her immersion in Wagner in general, began in the mid-1950's. No dramatic soprano truly approached her stature thereafter, and in the roles of Isolde, Brünnhilde and Sieglinde, she began her stately 30-year procession around the opera houses of the world. Her United States debut was in San Francisco in 1956. Three years later she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera, singing Isolde under Karl Böhm, and some listeners treasure the memory of that performance as much as they do her live recording of the role from Bayreuth in 1966, also under Böhm. The exuberant review of her first Met performance appeared on the front page of The New York Times on Dec. 19, 1959, under the headline, "Birgit Nilsson as Isolde Flashes Like New Star in 'Met' Heavens."

Playing opposite Karl Liebl as Tristan, Howard Taubman wrote, "she dominated the stage and the performance."

When she appeared at the end of the first act to take a solo bow, he wrote, the audience "roared like the Stadium fans when Conerly throws a winning touchdown pass."

Like so many distinctive artists, Ms. Nilsson considered herself self-taught. "The best teacher is the stage," she told an interviewer in 1981. "You walk out onto it, and you have to learn to project." She deplored her early instruction and attributed her survival to native talent. "My first voice teacher almost killed me," she said. "The second was almost as bad."

Birgit Nilsson was born in 1918. Her mother, evidently a talented singer, began Ms. Nilsson's musical education at 3, buying her a toy piano. She began picking out melodies on it.

She once told an interviewer that she could sing before she could walk. "I even sang in my dreams," she added. A choirmaster near her home heard her sing and advised her to study. She entered the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm in 1941.

Ms. Nilsson made her debut at the Royal Opera in Stockholm in 1946, replacing the scheduled Agathe in Weber's "Freischütz," who was too ill to go on. The next year she claimed attention there as Verdi's Lady Macbeth under Fritz Busch. A wealth of parts followed, from Strauss and Verdi to Wagner, Puccini and Tchaikovsky.

Her first splash abroad was 1951, as Elettra in Mozart's "Idomeneo" at the Glyndebourne Festival in England. From there, it was a short hop to the Vienna State Opera and then to Bayreuth. She took the title role of "Turandot," which is brief but in need of an unusually big sound, to Milan in 1958 and then to the rest of Italy.

Ms. Nilsson was suspicious of opera's recent youth culture and often remarked on the premature destruction of young voices brought on by overambitious career planning. "Directors and managers don't care about their futures," she once said. "They will just get another young person when this one goes bad."

In today's opera culture, the best managed voices tend to mature in the singer's 40's and begin to deteriorate during the 50's. (Singers like Plácido Domingo, flourishing in his 60's, might dispute such generalizations.) Yet at 66, when most singers hang onto whatever career remains through less taxing recitals with piano and discreet downward transpositions of key, Ms. Nilsson sang a New York concert performance of Strauss and Wagner that met both composers head-on.

"Ms. Nilsson did not sound young," Will Crutchfield wrote in The Times. "Soft and low notes were often precarious; sustained tones were not always steady." He continued: "The wonderful thing is that she doesn't let this bother her. There was never a sense of distress or worry."

The conductor Erich Leinsdorf thought that her longevity, like Flagstad's, had something to do with her Scandinavian heritage, remarking that Wagner required "thoughtful, patient and methodical people." Ms. Nilsson attributed her long career to no particular lifestyle or regimen. "I do nothing special," she once said. "I don't smoke. I drink a little wine and beer. I was born with the right set of parents."

In sheer power, Ms. Nilsson's high notes were sometimes compared to those of the Broadway belter Ethel Merman. One high C rendered in a "Turandot" performance in the outdoor Arena di Verona in Italy led citizenry beyond the walls to think that a fire alarm had been set off. Once urged to follow Ms. Nilsson in the same role at the Met, the eminent soprano Leonie Rysanek refused.

Ms. Nilsson was known for her one-liner humor. The secret to singing Isolde, she said, was "comfortable shoes." After a disagreement with the Australian soprano Joan Sutherland, Ms. Nilsson was asked if she thought Ms. Sutherland's famous bouffant hairdo was real. She answered: "I don't know. I haven't pulled it yet." After the tenor Franco Corelli was said to have bitten her neck in an onstage quarrel over held notes, Ms. Nilsson canceled performances complaining that she had rabies.

Ms. Nilsson was also a shrewd businesswoman and negotiated much of her own career. She never ranted or engaged in tantrums. She was also too proud to make outright demands. She would begin contract talks by refusing every offer and being evasive about her availability in general. This tack would continue until the impresario offered something she wanted. Ms. Nilsson's reply would be "maybe." Now in control, she would be begged to accept what she desired in the first place.

She could stand up to intensely wired conductors like Georg Solti as well. When Solti, in "Tristan und Isolde," insisted on tempos too slow for her taste, she made the first performance even slower, inducing a conductorial change of heart.

Partly because Ms. Nilsson was on the scene, Decca Records undertook the audacious and mammothly expensive project of making the first studio recording of Wagner's four-opera "Ring" cycle conducted by Solti and produced by John Culshaw. The effort took seven years, from 1958 to 1965. A film of the proceedings made her a familiar image for arts-conscious television viewers.

Ms. Nilsson's American career was derailed in the mid-70's by a squabble with the Internal Revenue Service, which had filed claims for back taxes. Several years later, cooler heads intervened: a schedule of payments was worked out, and Ms. Nilsson's ill-tempered hiatus from the United States ended. When she returned, Donal Henahan wrote in The Times, "The famous shining trumpet of a voice is still far from sounding like a cornet."

Ms. Nilsson appeared at the Met 223 times in 16 roles. She sang two complete "Ring" cycles in the 1961-62 season, and another in 1974-75. She was Isolde 33 times, and Turandot 52. The big soprano parts were all hers: Aida, Tosca, the Dyer's Wife in Strauss's "Frau Ohne Schatten," Salome, Elektra, Lady Macbeth, Leonore in Beethoven's "Fidelio," and both Venus and Elisabeth in Wagner's "Tannhäuser." For much of this time, the Met's general manager was Rudolf Bing. Ms. Nilsson, when signing a contract, was asked to name a dependent. She wrote in Bing's name.

James Levine, who conducted her in Wagner and Strauss at the Met, said yesterday: "Birgit was unique. Her voice, the dedication of her artistry, her wonderfully wicked sense of humor and her loyal friendship were in a class by themselves. I miss her already, as does the entire Met family." At Mr. Levine's 25th-anniversary gala at the Met in 1996, she spoke briefly and wittily, throwing in a brief and wholly professional Valkyrie hoot at the end.

Ms. Nilsson had by then retired to her childhood home in the Skane province of southern Sweden. Here her father had been a sixth-generation farmer, and here she had worked to grow beets and potatoes until she was 23. A decade ago an interviewer for The Times found her there: happy, serene and as unpretentious as ever. "I've always tried to remember what my mother used to tell me," she said. "Stay close to the earth. Then when you fall down, it won't hurt so much."

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Birgit Nilsson Dies

The great Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson died on Christmas Day in her native Sweden. It was only today that her death was reported in America. She was one of the greatest stars of our times, memorable in the roles of Turandot, Tosca, and Aida. It was in the works of Richard Wagner, however, that she will be remembered as one of the immortals. During the late 1950's and '60's she was the world's leading Brünnhilde and Isolde, and her recording of The Ring, conducted by Sir Georg Solti, (the first complete Ring to be recorded in stereo) was a memorable landmark event.

I was very lucky to hear her live in Richard Strauss' Elektra and Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Metropolitan Opera when she made her triumphal return to America in the early 1980's. Although past her prime, those performances had an unforgettable electricity, and those of us who were lucky enough to get tickets for these performances will never forget them. You can read more about Birgit Nilsson career by visiting the Wagnerian Sopranos section of Wagner Operas.

The following is the New York Times obituary:

STOCKHOLM, Sweden (AP) -- Birgit Nilsson, the farmer's daughter who became renowned in the world's great opera houses for her dazzling voice and among colleagues for her playful sense of humor, has died at age 87.

She died on Christmas Day, the Stockholm daily Svenska Dagbladet reported.

As word spread of her death two decades after she retired, the Swedish singer was remembered as one of the world's top Wagnerian sopranos.

''With Birgit Nilsson's passing, Sweden has lost one of its greatest artists,'' King Carl XVI Gustaf said in a rare statement.

''She was one of the greatest singers of the 20th century,'' said Menno Feenstra, artistic director at Stockholm's Royal Opera, who developed a close friendship with Nilsson after her retirement.

Feenstra called her vocal skills ''so solid and so 100 percent that you can hardly find a singer nowadays that has a technique like that.''

A funeral was held Wednesday at a church in her native town Vastra Karup in southern Sweden, with only her closest relatives attending, said Fredrik Westerlund, the church's vicar. He did not know when she died or the cause of death, but Nilsson was said to have had heart trouble in recent years.

Born on a farm, Nilsson reigned supreme at the world's opera houses during her career, which began in 1946 at the Stockholm Royal Opera as Agathe in Weber's ''Der Freischutz'' and continued until 1984.

She sang a wide variety of dramatic roles, but her reputation was based especially on her mastery of the most punishing in the repertory. Chief among these was Isolde in Wagner's ''Tristan und Isolde,'' which she sang for her sensational debut at New York's Metropolitan Opera on Dec. 18, 1959.

She was immediately hailed as a worthy successor to her fellow Scandinavian, Kirsten Flagstad, the Norwegian who owned the Wagner repertory at the Met during the years before World War II.

Other parts Nilsson made her own included Bruennhilde, the warrior maiden of Wagner's ''Ring'' cycle, the title role of Elektra in Richard Strauss' opera, and the heroine of Puccini's ''Turandot.''

''Birgit was unique!'' Met music director James Levine said in a statement. ''Her voice, her artistry, her sense of humor and her friendship were in a class of their own. I was so fortunate to hear her sing many times over the years, and eventually to work with her on several memorable occasions with Wagner and Strauss.''

''The thing that was remarkably wonderful about her was that she had no conceit. She was completely modest,'' Jon Vickers, her frequent Tristan, said in a telephone interview from his home in Bermuda.

At her peak, Nilsson astounded audiences in live performance with the unforced power of her voice, which easily cut through the thickest orchestrations, and with her remarkable breath control, which allowed her to hold onto the highest note for seemingly endless amounts of time. Her interpretive powers grew as her career developed, and she became a moving artist as well as a vocal phenomenon.

Her reputation in operatic lore was enhanced on Dec. 28, 1959, when she sang a performance of ''Tristan'' opposite three different tenors. Her scheduled co-star, Karl Liebel was ill, and so were his two ''covers,'' Ramon Vinay and Albert DaCosta. Met general manager Rudolf Bing perusaded each of them to go one for a single act so the performance wouldn't have to be canceled.

Nilsson also was renowned for her playful sense of humor. Once asked what was the chief requirement for singing Isolde, she replied: ''Comfortable shoes.''

Johanna Fiedler, in her book about the Met, ''Molto Agitato,'' tells the story of Nilsson's unhappiness with the gloomy lighting on which Herbert von Karajan insisted for his production of the ''Ring.'' To register her objections, she appeared on stage during a 1967 rehearsal of ''Die Walkuere'' wearing a coal miner's helmet with searchlight and wings.

''Karajan just looked at her, put his head down and conducted,'' Vickers recalled. ''He wouldn't look at her.''

Another legendary moment came after one of her frequent battle-of-the-high-note contests with tenor Franco Corelli during the second act duet from ''Turandot.'' Enraged that no matter how he tried she could hold onto the climactic high C longer than he could, Corelli apparently got his revenge during their third-act love scene by biting her on the neck instead of kissing her. Nilsson is said to have telephoned Bing to cancel her next performance with the explanation, ''I have rabies.''

Nilsson recalled the episode in an Oct. 30, 2003, phone interview with the AP following Corelli's death.

''He neither bit nor kissed me. It all ended appropriately in any case,'' she said.

Nilsson sang with the Met 222 times in 16 roles, making her finale at the October 1983 centennial gala. Her last appearance on the Met stage came more than a decade later, when she took part in an April 1996 gala celebrating Levine's 25th anniversary with the company. After some gracious remarks, she launched into Bruennhilde's ''ho-yo-to-ho'' battle cry from ''Walkuere,'' delivering -- at age 77 -- a performance that would have been the envy of any younger soprano.

Nilsson made her American debut at the San Francisco Opera on Oct. 5, 1956, as Bruennhilde, and sang at the Lyric Opera of Chicago from 1956-74. She sang Bruennhilde in the 1960s recording of Wagner's Ring Cycle with Sir Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic, considered by many the definitive rendition.

She appeared 232 times at the Vienna State Opera from 1954-82, and the Vienna Philharmonic, the company's orchestra, made her an honorary member in 1999.

''If there ever was someone that one can call a real star today and a world-famous opera singer during her time then that was Frau Nilsson,'' said Ioan Holender, director of the Vienna State Opera.

Her music education started at age 3, when her mother, an accomplished amateur singer, bought Birgit a toy piano, on which she learned to pick out melodies.

''I sang before I could walk. I even sang in my dreams,'' she told reporters soon after her opera debut.

After retirement, she continued to teach master's level courses in singing.

Although she studied at Sweden's Royal Academy of Music, Nilsson said she learned most of her musical skills on her own.

''I'm mostly self-educated. I discovered early how wonderfully easy it was to sing in big localities. In small rooms my voice got tired,'' she told a Swedish reporter once.

Despite her worldwide recognition, Nilsson said she was nervous before every major performance.

''Before a premiere, on the way to the opera, I'd hope for just a small, small accident, it didn't need to be much, but just so I would not have to sing,'' she said in a 1977 interview on Swedish TV.

Nilsson married Swedish restaurateur Bertil Niklasson in 1949. The couple had no children.


Associated Press writers Mike Silverman and Ronald Blum in New York, Mattias Karen in Stockholm and George Jahn in Vienna, Austria, contributed to this report.