Long Live the Surtitle!

In this Sunday’s New York Times, Anthony Tommasini writes about opera surtitles* being used for operas that are performed in English. Tommasini uses a recent trip to the English National Opera where they did not use surtitles for Benjamin Britten’s opera “Death in Venice” as his jumping off point. He is not exactly anti-surtitles, but he does seem to suffer from a bit of elitist angst over the use of surtitles when operas are performed in the native language of the audience.

Among other things, Tommasini is supportive of the ENO’s mission to present all of their productions in English. I take the exact opposite view and think that the ENO’s continued use of English translations is silly since the advent of surtitles. Contrary to Tommasini’s point of view, there are very few vocal lines that allow singers to produce truly clear—understand it in the cheap seats—diction. Nor are there many singers who can pull it off even if such vocal lines existed. Some of the best voices don’t necessarily come with the best diction.

When I lived in London in 1992, making a measly 540 GBPs a month while paying rent in the West End, the only reason I went to the ENO was because it was affordable. And for all the time I spent at the ENO then and more recently, I can tell you I understood precious few of the words sung on any given night.

Tommasini also makes the rather obvious observation that it would have been inconceivable to Verdi and Wagner to have their operas performed without being translated into the vernacular language. Oh brother. I bet they wouldn’t have been able to conceive of a lot of things that happen in modern opera performances from staging, to the price and quality of the food available during intermission, to lighting, heck, maybe even to flush toilets.

No doubt Verdi could not have imagined someone sitting on a train or running on a treadmill listening to one of his works through a pair of headphones. Hmm…I guess that means no more Macbeth on my iPod. Sorry Verdi, didn’t mean to blow your mind.

*Surtitles are like subtitles in a foreign film except they are usually projected above the stage during an opera performance. Some places like the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Staatsoper in Vienna have individual readouts on the seat in front of you that you can turn on or off as you wish. In Vienna you can even choose among German, English, and the language in which the opera is being sung.

Renee Fleming: The Inner Voice Over-Emotes

On my recent field trip to Daedalus Books, I picked up Renee Fleming’s book The Inner Voice: The Making of a Singer for $4.98. Considering I almost paid the full $24.95 list price when it first came out, I considered this to be quite a bargain. Miss Fleming (or “Double Creme” if you believe Sir Georg Solti’s nickname for her) is not really my cup of tea these days, but having seriously studied voice as an undergraduate I was intrigued by the book nonetheless.
This is not your typical Diva autobiography. Encouraged by her friend, the insanely wonderful writer, Ann Patchett, Fleming wrote a book that is about all of those things that are left out of gossipy Divagraphies. She talks about the everyday life of an opera singer, from vocal technique to business management. The book was interesting for what it was, but I couldn’t help but wish for a little more gossip or at least a few more peeks at her famous diva friends and colleagues.

Despite the overly cautious, slightly boring “how to” quality that pervades The Inner Voice, reading it encouraged me to reconsider my dislike for Miss Double Creme’s singing. She is the toast of the singing world after all and has lots of fans (including the lovely Ms Patchett who fashioned the heroine of her novel Bel Canto with Fleming’s voice in mind). After finishing the book I popped in the one Fleming disk that I own (“Renee Fleming By Request”) and listened to her sing “E strano…” from La Traviata to see if maybe I had been wrong in my opinion of her singing. I actually had a hard time listening to the entire track. She puts so much color and emotion into every single note that she sounds like an overblown caricature of an opera singer. Like someone with a good voice pretending to be an opera singer.

A couple of years ago, before I had developed a dislike for Fleming, I heard her in a recital of french songs with the mezzo soprano Susan Graham at the Kennedy Center. All I could think that night was how much better Graham was. At the time I felt like there must be something wrong with me, after all Fleming was a much bigger star. But with every set they sang I couldn’t help but conclude that Graham was by far the better voice and the better artist. Still, it wasn’t until I saw a Fleming Christmas special taped in some church in Germany that I really began to dislike La Fleming. My main beef was not with the quality of her voice, but rather with her seemingly uncontrollable need to emote and emote and emote so that every note is so dripping with bathos it makes your teeth hurt. I don’t think “O Holy Night” is supposed to sound like a love song–divine love perhaps–but not a “hey baby I will literally die if you don’t come over here and make love to me” kind of love. It’s not Wagner’s Liebestod after all. In fact I don’t even want to hear the Liebestod with that much schmaltz.

What is the point of all this? Fleming will continue to make a good living and I will no longer feel like there is something wrong with me for not wanting to listen to her sing.

Favorite Performances of All Time

As some of you know from reading a previous blog, I keep track of every concert and opera that I go to in a spreadsheet. I have information going back to about 1989. My temptation in picking my favorite performances of all time was to go back to look at the spreadsheet to jog my memory. Then I thought that would be cheating. After all, if it doesn’t pop into my head it couldn’t have been that good right?

So here they are off the top of my head (with performance details added after peeking at my spreadsheet) in no particular order…

Le Sacre du Printemps – Igor Stravinsky
London Symphony Orchestra, Barbican – London
Riccardo Chailly, 23 March 2000

At age 30 I had never heard this piece before. I knew the lore behind the riotous premiere of the work but had never heard the piece. Well, I was blown away. The front row of the balcony at the Barbican put me pretty close to the LSO and it was stunning. Also heard Salonen and Cleveland do it at Severance Hall in 2004 to similar effect.

The Dream of Gerontius – Edward Elgar
Bavarian State Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Opera House – Munich
Zubin Mehta, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Dennis O’Neill, Rene Pape, 10 June 2002

This performance was so spot on it was amazing. Despite the German “t” at the end of words like “god” and “lord”, the chorus was muscular and beautiful all at the same time. The soloists were also wonderful, Rene Pape was filling in for Thomas Quasthoff–I was disappointed that TQ wasn’t going to be there until RP opened his mouth. What a voice. The brilliance of this performance was reinforced when I heard a sloppy, lackluster performance by the NSO here in DC later that same year.

Symphony No. 8 (Symphony of a Thousand) – Gustav Mahler
Minnesota Orchestra/Gothenberg Orchestra, Midsummer Festival – Bloomington, MN
Neeme Jarvi, June 1988

This performance got terrible reviews (“Heat Deals Death Blow to Mahler”) but it was incredible for me because I was in the mammoth chorus. It was held outside in a giant tent as part of the short lived Midsummer Festival. Too bad about the bad acoustics and heat, everything else was right – Jarvi, two orchestras, soloists and choruses from Sweden and Minnesota.

Symphony No. 11 (The Year 1905) – Dimitri Shostokovich
Minnesota Orchestra, Orchestra Hall – Minneapolis
Leonard Slatkin, 27 October 1990 (Hat tip to Spartacus for providing correct conductor)

One of many great nights at Orchestra Hall, but this night was special. The playing was wonderful and the place was packed. The audience was not only well behaved, but it was one of those nights where everything just feels electric–as if the entire audience was holding its breath.

Tannhauser – Richard Wagner
Metropolitan Opera, New York
Mark Elder, Deborah Voigt, Michelle De Young, Thomas Hampson, 26 November 2004
Two years earlier I went to Vienna to hear Deborah Voigt sing both soprano roles in Tannhasuer but she cancelled. Of course the Vienna performance was still good even without her, in fact it was only a shade or two less fabulous than this Met performance which was a sonic delight.

Macbeth – Giuseppe Verdi
Deutsche Staatsoper, Unter den Linden – Berlin
8 June 2002

I don’t remember who sang in this, I don’t remember who conducted…all I remember is that Lady Macbeth sang the s**t out of that role. Her voice was beautiful and powerful. The production was very abstract and she looked a bit like she was wearing one of Phyllis Diller’s feathery hats from the 60s but it was a great performance. There was a kind of runway/catwalk that followed the outer rim of the orchestra pit so Lady Macbeth was all that much closer to the audience.

War Requiem – Benjamin Britten
Minnesota Orchestra, Orchestra Hall – Minneapolis
Robert Shaw, 13 March 1998

Powerful, well-sung performance. Although I love Britten, I had a hard time warming up this work in recordings, but in person it all makes wonderful sense. The interplay of the various ensembles and texts is quite moving. One of the fun things about this performance came at the end when the choristers took their bows standing in the two aisles on the main floor. This made the usual “standing evacuation” that takes place at the front of the house during the applause impossible.

Symphony No. 2 – Gustav Mahler
Cleveland Orchestra, Severance Hall – Cleveland
Jaha Ling, 16 March 2002

I have heard this piece in concert about five times and this was definitely the best of them. One of the soloists was a little hard to hear but it didn’t diminish the power of the performance by the stunning Cleveland Orchestra in what has to be one of the most beautiful halls in America.

Holidays Symphony – Charles Ives
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Royal Albert Hall – London
Libor Pesek, 29 July 1992

This is another of those pieces that isn’t done justice on record. To hear this crazy work in person is a little mind blowing. At one point a second conductor rises from the orchestra to try and manage an orchestra within the orchestra that is playing something totally different like two separate marching bands bump coming down the same street destined for a head on collision. With Dvorak Symphony No. 9 (From the New World) and the Stars and Stripes Forever on the program, there was also a certain pride in being an American in London that night.

Rhapsody for Orchestra – Yuzo Toyama
Minnesota Orchestra, Orchestra Hall – Minneapolis
Eiji Oue, 13 May 1999

The controversial Oue at his best. Flashy, fast, and loud. This piece opened a concert and the response from the audience was so enthusiastic I seem to remember they actually repeated the piece. But to be truthful, I can’t remember if they really did repeat it or if it was just my imagination. I know I wanted them to repeat it, but I no longer remember what really happened.

Symphony No. 7 – Beethoven
Honolulu Symphony, Blaisdell Center – Honolulu
Eiji Oue, 1996 or 1997

I know Oue has his critics, and I am no fan, but this performance was truly engrossing. No doubt some would quarrel with his extremes of dynamics–especially the pianissimo–but score be damned, it was enjoyable.