Monday, August 17, 2009

Generic voices....?

Blog post submitted by Carol Maxym

I interviewed a young singer a couple months ago. Teppei Kono was in Honolulu to sing Morales in the Honolulu Opera Theater production of Carmen in early 2009 (You can find my interview with Teppei in the Features section coming up, and he’s definitely worth reading about. You can find his songs in TOI-Tracks and he’s definitely worth hearing).

One thing Teppei said really stuck. Actually it’s stunningly intelligent and perceptive. He said that the young singers who make it big quickly tend to be the ones with “generic voices.” Now that’s not meant in any way to disparage the young singers who are making great careers—not at all. But it is a very accurate statement about one thing that has happened to opera in the last couple of decades. Vanilla.

Bland vanilla. Lots of hoopla about new and extravagant productions. Lots of gutsy, cutting edge stage direction, but the music—the singing—no more rocky road or double-chocolate-peppermint-swirl. It’s vanilla.

My love for opera came from a different time. A time when one could easily tell a voice because what was “great” was the very particular character of each and every voice. Maria Callas. Leontyne Price, even Joan Sutherland (whose voice I personally never really enjoyed) could never, ever be mistaken for anyone else’s.

It rained yesterday in Honolulu. It rained a lot. So I considered going to the Met Simulcast of Madame Butterfly. But after I had so much trouble finding out (well, I never really did find out) if there were still tickets and saw the reviews online (not very positive), I decided to stay home to read about Behavioral Economics (quite interesting). When it was time to go out to do errands, I flipped on the radio in the car, only to find the last few minutes of Butterfly being broadcast. And it was fine. But as I listened to Butterfly’s final words, I thought of Leontyne Price and the recording I had some 40 years ago. And it wasn’t there. The pathos born of betrayal, not yet really believed, that wrung my heart every time I heard it—wrings my heart now as I write about it.

And there it was: generic emotion, generic singing. Not what I want when I go to the opera. I want to feel so much emotion, I want to be overwhelmed and arrested when I go to the opera. (Incidentally I was very pleased to discover that 13-year old Madeleine Rassaby of Montana shared my opinion after she went to the cinema broadcast of the same production. She will be featured in our "Spotlight Series" soon, too!)

I’ve always thought that you can tell when a performance was as perfect as possible when, after the last note, there is a moment of quiet before the audience can react, begins to applaud and cheer.

At the end of this Butterfly, even before the orchestra had quite closed, the applause had begun.

You can’t be arrested generically.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Arts in Crisis

Ever since we started building The Opera Insider, I feel like I have learned so much more about opera, classical music, and the arts in general than I ever did when I was whole-heartedly immersed in it as a singer only. Today I read about a fantastic initiative put forth by the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. The initiative is called Arts in Crisis, and you can find detailed information on their website: In their own words, their goal is "to provide emergency planning assistance to struggling arts organizations throughout the United States. Expanding on previously existing arts management programs at the Kennedy Center, Arts in Crisis will provide free consulting from both Kennedy Center President Michael M. Kaiser and members of the Kennedy Center's executive staff."

Monday, August 3, 2009

Seattle's Ring

Thanks to the generosity of a phenomenal friend (who, by the way, might have been there himself had it not been for his grandpa's 80th Birthday!!) I was able to go see Rheingold at Seattle Opera las Saturday night.  Just ever so slightly bummed that I was going to miss a beautiful evening playing with my nephew and eating greasy pizza and ice cream, I made my way over to the beautiful McCaw Hall in downtown Seattle (if I hadn't forgotten my camera cable, I would post pictures here) for the dress rehearsal of the first opera in Wagner's Ring.  I confess I've never been much of a Wagner buff, so it's definitely time for me to brush up and get with the program.

Suffice it to say that I haven't gasped in amazement or laughed out loud at an opera in a long while.  The sets, evoking the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest, were absolutely magnificent (never before have I seen people swimming in air lit to such perfection that you really believed you were underwater with the Norns!), the costumes beautifully made, and the singing impeccable.  Greer Grimsley must be especially singled out for his flawless portrayal of the head-God, Wotan.  I didn't think I'd ever hear a Wotan that I liked more than James Morris, but I challenge you to find me a richer, smoother, and more expressive voice than that of Mr. Grimsley.  Richard Paul Fink was an appropriately disgusting yet somehow also an utterly lovable Alberich, while I was also particularly taken with the clear, bright voice of Froh, sung by tenor Jason Collins.  

You don't really expect moments of hysterical laughter in a Wagner opera, but you know what?  Make people laugh and they pay a lot more attention.  And if you can do that while at the same time showing off the most exquisite vocal talent, doing justice to the story, and entertaining your audiences, you must be doing something right.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Small Companies, Large Hearts

I had the distinct pleasure today of meeting with Regina Thomas, Director of the Puget Sound Concert Opera (  The organization is not old, three or four years, and like most other arts organizations, they're struggling financially.  But Regina won't give up, and thinks that perhaps with a few well-placed ads and some publicity and/or attention from the right people her company could survive way past this coming season.  And get this: of all the opera companies in Washington State (and yes there are several other relatively well-known ones beyond Seattle Opera: Bellevue Opera, Tacoma Opera, Spokane Opera plus numerous smaller ones you probably haven't heard of before), evidently Puget Sound Concert Opera is the first opera company EVER to perform Verdi's Simon Boccanegra in Seattle!  Unbelievable, right?  

They are just what they sound like: a concert opera.  They employ local singers eager to put another role under their belt and on their resume, but thanks to a recent merger (with some yet-to-be-determined terms) with Bellevue Opera, PSCO is now able to hire a very small orchestra to accompany its singers when they perform the 3-4 operas they do each season.  They perform in venues throughout the Seattle area, but also travel outside the city, specifically to Friday Harbor in an effort to bring opera into places it really wouldn't normally reach.  Opera in rural Washington may seem an odd concept, but no odder I suppose than bringing organic vegetables onto the crowded streets of New York City.  These small companies are many and they will not all survive.  But they are little gems and should be treated with respect and encouraged to remain active and grow.