All Time Coloratura

Lady Gaga Costumes Reinterpreted as Opera Costumes

Posted in Weirdness by cToronto on March 25, 2010

Lady Gaga’s music doesn’t always do it for me; but her visual style is fascinating, in a very theatrical and imaginative way. Once, a photo of her made me think of the Queen of the Night and, after wishing that opera costumes would dip into the crazy a little more often, I started matching up her costumes with opera characters in my head. So, what did I come up with?

Lady Gaga in a Bubble costume - looks like a Rhinemaiden!

This one, featuring bubbles, blondeness, and suggestive nudity, looks like an underwater being – specifically, a Rhinemaiden – to me. Perhaps Alberich at the beginning of Rhinegold could try to pop the bubbles?

Lady Gaga as the Queen of the Night?

This is the costume that made me think of the Queen of the Night, though there are no obvious stars or moons involved. I think it’s those slightly visually jarring metallic panels that does it.

Hoof shoes = the devil?

The hoof shoes and massive sparkle here suggest some kind of devilish figure or witch. The sparkles take on a bit of a scaly tone in a certain view – how about Jezibaba, the sea-witch from Rusalka?

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Berlin, Or Not

Posted in Thoughts on Opera by cToronto on March 18, 2010

The “opera tour” is one of my travel fantasies, although I’ve never quite achieved it. In contrast to rushing from city to city, trying to hit the top five sights of each and fretting that you won’t be able to eat as well as the travel writers, there’s an unmistakable appeal to traveling with a specific purpose in mind. Decisions become simpler, and you know you’ll come away from it with more than a vague dissatisfaction and a dilettante’s appreciation of neoclassical architectural details. However, packaged opera tours are relatively rigid and prohibitively expensive for me.

Hence, Berlin. My plan was to find a cheap-ish vacation apartment and spend the month of May in cafes, attending several concerts and operas every week. I was particularly excited to see Ruggero Raimondi perform as Scarpia at the Deustche Oper Berlin. He has a special place in my heart: my transition from opera appreciator to opera obsessive coincided with my viewing of his 1992 television broadcast of “Tosca in the Settings and at the Times of Tosca”. It would be much classier to say that it was the Maria Callas/de Sabata recording that held that special place in my heart, but I am ready to admit my deficiencies in  taste.

Recent developments have upended all my plans, and Berlin will likely have to wait for next year. I hope Ruggero Raimondi doesn’t pick this year to retire.

Operas for Springtime: Les contes d’Hoffmann

Posted in Thoughts on Opera by cToronto on March 5, 2010

I have lived all my life in cold climates, and of the places I have lived Toronto is one of the warmest. But I still feel the misery of winter, and spent January and February trying to cheer myself with thoughts of March. When spring clothes arrived in the shops a few weeks ago, it felt like a cruelty. They mocked me from the windows while icy water seeped into my boots.

But then March 1st arrived, and the weather turned. I still need to wear my winter coat when I go out, but hearing the melting snow rushing into the drains makes me breathe easier. Without my hat, gloves, and scarf, I feel lighter and freer. This is the time of year I usually buy a new summer dress.

This is the time of year for French opera, or really any opera that’s lush. For me this will always be exemplified by Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann.

My favourite moments in Hoffmann:

1. Hoffmann, to amuse his friends, is singing a comical song about an ugly man named Kleinzach. Halfway through the song, about to describe Kleinzach’s figure, he is interrupted by thoughts of his former love and begins describing her beauty, confusing his audience greatly. The music accompanying his erotic reverie, honestly, isn’t especially interesting on its own – but the juxtaposition with the low, broad Kleinzach ditty is a little odd and completely charming.

2. Hoffmann has unknowingly fallen in love with a mechanical life-size singing doll. Her maker, who is throwing a party, brings her out to impress his guests. She performs a party-trick aria, full of almost-absurd coloratura fireworks. Listening to a soprano who can really pull this aria off is a joy in itself, but there’s more to it than that. Opera is full of party-trick arias that require mechanical precision to sing convincingly. Having a story where one performed as an actual party trick, by an actual machine, gives it another layer of interest and self-referential quirkiness.

3. Antonia is wasting away of a mysterious illness, that is somehow aggravated when she sings. The evil quack doctor, the ironically-named Dr. Miracle, purports to be able to treat her; but her father will have nothing of it. Dr. Miracle insists on seeing her, and tells that he can treat her from afar. He addresses an empty chair as though it were Antonia, and mimes taking her pulse. At first it seems like a charade, but when he commands her to sing, we hear a thrilling high note from offstage, followed by a descending scale. Equally exciting (to me) is the following sequence where Dr. Miracle attempts to sell his medicines, clicking his bottles together like castanets.

4. Antonia knows that if she sings too much, she will die. Part of what makes her sacrifice especially painful is that her mother was a famous diva, whose portrait dominates the scene. Under the influence of Dr. Miracle’s magic, the woman in the portrait stirs to life, imploring Antonia to keep singing. Her melody is diva-worthy.

The opera takes place over a series of dream-like fantasy sequences, wherein Hoffmann longs for idealized women who die, break, or leave with other men. It celebrates longing and fantasy (alcohol-fueled, of course) with one eye turned to the inherent ridiculousness of it all, knowing that there’s something both silly and exquisite about desires that can never be fulfilled. It’s this touch of irony that prevents its romanticism from becoming sugary, and that makes it the perfect theme music for the first nice day of spring.

Here’s the full portrait scene (portrait starts singing about 3 and a half minutes in):



New (to me): Four Saints in Three Acts

Posted in Thoughts on Opera by cToronto on March 4, 2010

Image via flickr user tambako

My poetry professor is an opera lover. He’s never explicitly stated this, but it is easy to infer. Even relatively slim connections to opera in our reading materials are expounded upon in great detail, and he organized a screening for students of a DVD of The Rake’s Progress (relevance to reading material: a libretto by W. H. Auden).

Today in class he introduced me to an opera I’d never heard of before: Four Saints in Three Acts, with music by Virgil Thomson and libretto by Gertrude Stein. I found the short segment he played in class to be utterly charming – the musical language familiar to anyone fond of romantic-era opera; the words entirely opaque. Hearing a chorus sing “Prepare for saints” with all the musical earnestness of the announcement of the coming of a Verdian king is an interesting operatic experience, especially for those of us who do not speak the language of our favourite operas.

Listening to an Italian opera when you don’t speak Italian is to experience the words as sound-patterns or elements of the music, rather than as referential or communicative. A single word might leap out here and there – amore, morto, avanti – but it’s mostly syllables. Four Saints in Three Acts, although it’s in English, isn’t that different. An understandable phrase will leap up now and then – prepare for saints – but most of the time it’s music-word after music-word.

I leave you with the text of what is, according to Wikipedia, the most famous aria: Pigeons on the grass alas.

Pigeons on the grass alas.
Pigeons on the grass alas.
Short longer grass short longer longer shorter yellow grass. Pigeons
large pigeons on the shorter longer yellow grass alas pigeons on the grass.
If they were not pigeons what were they. If they were not pigeons on the grass alas what were they. He had heard of a third and he asked about it it was a magpie in the sky. If a magpie in the sky on the sky can not cry if the pigeon on the grass alas can alas and to pass the pigeon on the grass alas and the magpie in the sky on the sky and to try and to try alas on the grass alas the pigeon on the grass the pigeon on the grass and alas.They might be very well they might be very well very well they might be. Let Lucy Lily Lily Lucy Lucy let Lucy Lucy Lily Lily Lily Lily Lily let Lily Lucy Lucy let Lily. Let Lucy Lily.