All Time Coloratura

Interesting Discussion of Renee Fleming’s “Dark Hope” at The Awl

Posted in Album Reviews by cToronto on June 18, 2010

I’d like to point you to this conversational “review” of Renee Fleming’s Dark Hope over at The Awl. It talks about Renee Fleming’s status in the opera world, the cautious reviews of the pop album, and whether this is a thinly-veiled attempt at “outreach” (but to whom?)


Zack: Yes! I still think that younger, cool, hip audiences can like ‘Traviata’ as well as ‘The Nose.’ but they have to be shown that ‘Traviata’ is as powerful, as affecting. There’s so much… stuff that builds up around these pieces

Seth: Oh, don’t “stuff” me. Tell me all about the plaque that’s really building up alongside traditional rep’s gumline. Creating all kinds of terrible gingivitis.

Zack: I mean, I think a lot of operas are taken for granted. And not really thought about even when they’re given a new production. Like, the new Met ‘Carmen’ was screaming “BOLD THEATRICALITY”, but then it had a lot of the same tired shit.

Go read it!


Review of Rufus Wainwright’s Prima Donna at Luminato

Posted in Luminato by cToronto on June 14, 2010

If you’re an opera buff, there are a lot of unkind things you might say about Prima Donna, pop singer Rufus Wainwright’s debut as opera composer. It has Der Rosenkavalier’s dull stretches without its intelligence or emotional depth; it has Puccini’s vulgarity without his soaring highs; it has the cliches of a creaky Verdi melodrama without the tunefulness. Is it unfair to compare Wainwright’s genre exploration to the form’s greatest masterworks? Perhaps, but perhaps not. Indeed, one might argue that in directly referencing his predecessors both musically and textually, Wainwright is kinda asking for it.

But now that these mean things have been said, let’s talk seriously about Prima Donna and what it means, and how it fits into the operatic tradition. Because there are a lot of things about it that are interesting. It’s at heart a revivalist work, meaning it makes a serious attempt to replicate both the musical language and the emotional language of a specific moment in the past, namely the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And revivalist works always raise the following question: how will this work be meaningful to modern audiences while immersing itself in the language of the past? How will it take account of the century of social and cultural change that stands between us and the tradition it invokes?

Some artists deal with this problem with nostalgia, showing us a fantasy past where our values are reflected back at us (see: all those proto-feminist heroines in historical fiction). Some use irony. Some use it as a mechanism to examine today’s world, in much the same way as science fiction. Some take the postmodern route, reconfiguring the old material in a way that exposes all the seams. Prima Donna is both nostalgic and postmodern, but not in a simple way.

It’s an opera about opera, or rather, an opera about the way we relate to opera in the 21st century. The elements of opera emphasized in Prima Donna are the ones that describe it in the popular imagination today: sweeping romanticism, melodrama, Europe, foreign languages, sparkly dresses, high notes, grand divas, and heroines with crushed dreams. And, hanging over everything, the narrative of decline. The diva’s best days are over. Her beauty is fading, her opulent apartment has grown shabby, and her companions are deserting her. In the early Broadway musicals, while the form was on the rise, the plots were always about scrappy young nobodies transformed into stars; it’s hard not to read diva Saint Laurent’s decline as reflective of the fear and pessimism that shrouds the opera world today.

The music in Prima Donna is lush and romantic, with liberal use of the harp, but everything sounds a bit smoothed-over – there isn’t often much to catch the ear. It sounds sometimes as though Wainwright is anxious that he not be accused of simply arranging his pop songs for strings. But the most hooky moments are also the most enjoyable – the maid’s aria that opens the second act comes immediately to mind. The vocal performances are excellent all around, and all the principals (especially Opera Atelier regular Colin Ainsworth as the journalist) have rich and sumptuous voices. Janis Kelly as Regine the diva is commanding and entirely believable as a great star.

The libretto, sadly, is the weakest link. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether it’s meant to be campy or serious. This is particularly disappointing given that Wainwright’s songs are full of lyric inventiveness and emotional nuance – his trademark charm is swallowed up here in grave, simplistic pronouncements. The characters in this opera express themselves like, well, characters in an opera – perhaps this is meant to serve the pastiche, but a smarter libretto would have gone a long way in lifting this work above banality.

As always, below are the alternative opinions. I’ve expanded the net this time to include productions of Prima Donna that took place in other cities. I can’t help but noting that reviewers who confessed to not being “opera people” seemed to enjoy the work the most, while opera buffs tended to be harsher with it. Perhaps this makes sense – when the trio from Rosenkavalier is explicitly referenced, it’s hard not to notice that Wainwright’s version of the trio isn’t as good. But if you’re new to opera and not making those comparisons, it might seem like just the right mix of romanticism, sensuality, sincerity, and drama, a combination that isn’t given a lot of space to play in our irony-obsessed moment. Prima Donna may be an ideal entry-level work for people who are curious about opera, but who like to keep one foot in the pop world. The premiere audience gave it a standing ovation.

UPDATE: added some reviews from Toronto. Since I attended the premiere, they weren’t available until this morning.

Parterre Box: “I’m glad that someone as undeniably talented as Wainwright loved opera enough to want to dare to write one of his own. It’s not quite an heroic failure, but it would be churlish indeed to say that it isn’t an honourable one.”

The New York Times: ” The opera ends with a tender aria for Régine, a long-spun melody with a gentle accompaniment riff: in other words, a Wainwright song. Would that there had been more of them.”

Toronto Star: “Despite the best efforts of those capable singers, a clever director, an impressive set and lighting and a willing orchestra and conductor, Prima Donna is a dramatic wreck.”

Globe and Mail: “Is it truly a work of our time? (No.) Does it point out a new way forward for the art form of opera? (Certainly not.) But if we ask a question that’s both smaller and more to the point – Is Prima Donna a musically and dramatically effective work? – the answer is a resounding yes.”

Eye Weekly: “Rufus Wainwright’s Prima Donna receives just about the finest production a first-time opera composer could hope for. Yet despite the ardent advocacy of the singers, conductor and director, the opera’s inherent flaws are all too apparent.”

Torontoist: ” Wainwright insists that an opera about opera has never been seen before, but the show fails to expand on that premise. Presented with the opportunity of taking a reflective look at the art form, the plot of this “meta-opera” instead focuses too much on the melodrama—the brash temper tantrums, the embellished embraces, and the soul-crushing heartbreak that have become clichéd in the eyes of non–opera-goers”

The Montreal Gazette: “The dedicated Rufus fan can see traces of his characteristic vocal style in some of the music, but as one audience member nearby asked, where are the tunes?”

The Guardian: “The score itself comes clothed as Strauss, Massenet and Puccini; Wainwright would seem to be on a mission to drag opera back into the late 19th century. But his gift as a melodist and an orchestrator are in no doubt”

NME: “Wainwright has earned the right to live out his Guiseppe Verdi fantasies. The fact he can not only make this grand folly work artistically, but also achieve it with his cool and affability intact, tells you a great deal about this remarkable artist’s charmed existence.”

The Independent: “Musically Prima Donna is at best banal, at worst boring. The orchestral writing is lumpy, leaden and repetitive, so that the merest flash of inspiration – a dashing musical signature for example – is welcomed with relief as an original idea.”

The Independent (again): “This rather camp confection bears some recognisable fingerprints of the Rufus Wainwright we know and love – kernels of melody and subversive harmony that occasionally knock it off-kilter – but for the most part it’s distressingly derivative”

Paste Magazine: “Overall, it was a charming and enjoyable, if not exceptional, work of art, and it was endearing to see a bearded Wainwright roaming the theater halls in top hat and cane. There was much of his persona evident throughout Prima Donna, and that was ultimately the opera’s greatest strength.”

The Evening Standard: “at times the music can descend into stylised vamping. But Wainwright has what too many starter opera composers lack, a sense of drama, of the ebb and flow of emotion and the vitalising force of character.”

The Omniscient Mussel: “Overall, Prima Donna is worth seeing. It is tempting to write it off as the work of an enthusiastic amateur imitating his heroes but the music is too good for that. Writing new opera is difficult and while there are several things that don’t quite work, what’s more important is that the opera shows tremendous potential.”

There Ought To Be Clowns: “Sometimes though, there is just too much going on with the music, with little thematic consistency emerging from the evening, it can get a little bit wearing. And for me, I found the balance was sometimes questionable.”

City Life: “Prima Donna is an entertaining – and accessible – piece of music theatre, full of passion, drama and, perhaps most surprising and welcome, some wonderful grace notes of humour.”

Drowned in Sound: “Sure enough, opera buffs reacted fairly badly to Prima Donna, rejecting it as lightweight, musically boring, overlong and a bit silly; but they were missing the point entirely.”

Music OMH: ” The only people who may not be converted by this opera are the outright Wainwright haters, and that’s mainly because they won’t be giving themselves the chance to by staying at home. That group aside, anyone else is likely to be, at the very least, pleasantly surprised, if not, as I was, entirely bowled over by the experience.”

Primi Divi: “But the musical ideas just didn’t like go anywhere. The same idea was repeated over and over and after a while it got boring, it didn’t mean anything anymore. Like there was one bit where the main character Regine was singing in octaves, two notes an octave apart, going down the scale chromatically. Great stuff the first 3-4 times but after that it was like, sing something else can’t you?”

People Who Like Opera

Posted in Thoughts on Opera by cToronto on May 31, 2010

Last Thursday, Robert Thicknesse of The Guardian published a piece highly critical of opera and opera culture. Though he has long been an opera lover, he says, he’s been finding it difficult to keep the faith in the face of what he perceives as the elitist nature of the form.

You hardly need me to tell you that opera is pretty stupid. Ask the audience: plenty of them will tell you the same, if you can get them to wake up. Is there any other form of entertainment so frequented by people who do not like it? This notion – that opera is not actually all that much fun – is hardly new; that’s why it comes all dollied up in red velvet, snobbery, fancy dress and vats of alcohol, sops to the considerable sections of the audience who are there for reasons not associated with aesthetic pleasure, the socially ambitious, the conspicuous spenders, those trying to beguile clients or spouses or potential mistresses.

I have indeed met people whose enjoyment of opera was transparently a product of their class aspirations, and people who are attracted to the opera more because of the atmosphere of red velvet, snobbery, and fancy dress than because of the music (usually this viewpoint has been informed by movies and TV, and they are sorely disappointed when they attend an actual opera). But Thicknesse’s description really isn’t my experience of the “opera crowd” at all. When I think about the people I know who regularly attend the opera, few of them fit into this stereotype. So in response to this essay, I’ll talk about what “the opera crowd” means to me.


My mother dated an opera singer in her youth and watched the performances from the wings. She always, always cries at the end of Madama Butterfly and La Boheme. When I started getting seriously into opera, she usually watched the opera videos I rented with me. She loves Ben Heppner over all tenors, even though she doesn’t like Wagner.


My Grade 12 History teacher was “the cool teacher”, full of facts and a fantastic storyteller, with a strange and much-parodied-by-students way of shaking his hips while writing on the blackboard. He described opera as one of his great passions, and told us he’d been attending the opera for over 20 years. He liked Aida but hated Lucia di Lammermoor, and said he was the only person in his rock climbing group who listened to opera on his walkman while scaling walls.


I made a mix tape (back when these were actually cassette tapes) for a girl in high school who was growing into a good friend, who introduced me to the cool kids and invited me to parties. She played on the volleyball team and wore peasant blouses. The tape I made her had opera on one side, and instrumental classical on the other side, and I remember it being very heavy on Puccini. She told me that she loved it and listened to it constantly, as she fell asleep at night and when she woke up in the morning. She wrote me detailed notes on her response to each track and asked for more tapes, which I happily made. She loved the sound of the soprano voice.


When I’d outgrown Opera for Dummies and other introductory opera books, I started gleaning knowledge from online discussion groups, principally The most vocal members (in memory, anyway) were New Yorkers who spent a lot of time collecting bootleg recordings and reminiscing about The Old Days. They had the most vicious, creatively-worded flamewars I have ever encountered on the internet (which is actually pretty impressive), they were generally not rich people, and they loved opera with a fiery intensity. Splinter groups started forming on Yahoo groups, which were a bit less homogenous/nasty (with particular fondness I remember “Gay Opera Punks”, “Opera Dykes”, and “The Parlour of Opera Lovers”). They were full of young people who weren’t from NYC. They even included some teenaged girls who felt about Eugene Onegin the way some girls feel about Edward Cullen.


I worked during university at a ladies’ shoe store, staffed in large part by immigrants from Europe, some of whom had worked there ten years or more and had cultivated a loyal clientele. One of my favourite co-workers was Hungarian. She wore a pixie cut and heavy eyeshadow, and was always debating whether or not she could allow herself a muffin from the Treats kiosk in the food court. Though she never said anything about it to me, other co-workers told me that her family had escaped from behind the iron curtain on the pretext of a vacation, leaving all their possessions behind in Hungary. She said she didn’t miss Hungary at all, but that she deeply missed going to the opera. She had given up trying to take her husband to the opera in Canada, because he always fell asleep. She loved Tosca and Edith Piaf.


The man who taught my Modern Poetry class in University last year is an opera lover. The first day of class he wore a t-shirt that read “Pure Hell” in pink lettering. He is the only person I have seen successfully wear a pink tie/pink shirt combination. He never explicitly told us in class that he loves opera, but it is obvious – he lingered lovingly over the lines in T.S. Eliot that allude to The Ring Cycle, never failed to mention when a poet had also written an opera libretto, tried to recruit students into making use of the cheap tickets available from the English department, and organized screenings from his opera DVD collection. He made terrible, terrible jokes in class (sample: “Let’s get Wasted!” for The Waste Land), even in the weeks following the death of his mother that year. He admired Robert Lapage.


My friend Heather, who regular readers will remember as a contributor, is a graduate student who was once in the army and is now getting her PhD in 18th Century English Literature. Opera tickets are sometimes difficult for her to afford, but that doesn’t stop her from taking a chance on difficult or unfamiliar works. When she lived in Toronto (as she will again soon), we would attend together, both of us in the cheap seats in the fifth ring, and booze it up after the performance. Sometimes we listened to opera while working together at her apartment. She was the person who first took me to Opera Atelier.


For me, the stereotypical “opera crowd” includes a lot of teachers and academic types, music students, and retirees who probably didn’t listen to opera in their youth but are now interested in delving into a different kind of musical experience. At the end of La Traviata I usually hear sniffles all around me. Whenever I try to go see the Met movie telecasts they’re usually sold out, despite the plebian multiplex setting and proximity to screenings of Iron Man 2 or whatever. Sometimes I experience opera burnout, but not because I think everyone in the audience is a social climber or an idiot. Because, in truth, most of them aren’t.

UPDATE, 6:40 PM: Why not make this into a collaborative effort? In the comments, post a description of someone you know who really likes opera, and who does not fit the description of “the socially ambitious, the conspicuous spenders, those trying to beguile clients or spouses or potential mistresses”.

Opera Singers on Twitter

Posted in Opera on the Internet by cToronto on April 12, 2010

I just found Renee Fleming’s Twitter account. Can anyone think of other opera celebs (or, normal people who have interesting things to say about opera) I should be following?

(My twitter username is cecilybrenda. One day I might create a separate account for alltimecoloratura, but right now my recent posts are all about finally winning ADOM).

Can Opera Ever Really Be “Accessible”?

Posted in Thoughts on Opera by cToronto on April 8, 2010

Back when I was an avid reader of in the late 1990’s, there was a discussion about why modern opera composers write in such opaque musical styles rather than the sweet, soaring, melodic style of the most popular opera composers. “Where is the new Puccini?” someone wondered.

“The new Puccini has been around for a while,” went my favourite response. “His initials are ALW.”

I was reminded of this exchange (the initials, of course, stand for Andrew Lloyd Webber) when reading Opera Rat’s discussion of the state of opera criticism.

Opera is operating right now in a vortex of inaccessibility. Classic operas are performed so often that the conversation about them is dominated by subtleties. Newer operas are dominated by music appreciated mostly by experts. And opera in general is all but neglected except in the specialty press.

I think this is all unquestionably true. The standard repertoire gets boring fast if you attend the opera with any regularity, and the newer works will sound strange to ears that haven’t been to music school and attended Modern Music 101.

So, can opera ever be popular again the way it was in previous centuries? Are new operas with tonal, hummable music the way to bring in fresh blood?

The truth is, it’s already been done, and the people who are doing it (Webber et al) have adapted the operatic form into something else that sells a lot better. And that’s because opera, in its traditional form, is Kind of Weird, and really wedded to a particular time and culture – and that’s actually part of its idiosyncratic appeal.

Let me explain.

What makes Phantom of the Opera, say, different from La Traviata? The snarky among you would be inclined to say, “Verdi wasn’t a hack”, but that’s dodging the question. Webber’s late 80’s magnum opus features a lot of the characteristics we associate with opera – stage drama set to music, mostly through-composed, arias for each character meant to show off the singers’ voices, ensemble numbers, high-drama plot with murder, etc. It even, as I recall, features pastiches of a Verdi chorus and an 18th century bedroom farce. So what’s different?

Mostly it’s the style of singing. The singers are trained for Broadway or opera-lite (a la Brightman and Bocelli) rather than opera houses. They use microphones. The vibrato isn’t too heavy, and the overall sound is more palatable to people used to pop vocals. Frankly, most people find operatic voices something of an acquired taste (except, perhaps, when they sing a few ethereal high notes on a movie soundtrack).

Contemporary stage dramas set to pretty, hummable music? We’ve got Webber and the Les Miserables collaborators at the low end, and better quality stuff like Sondheim at the high end. Most of it is very accessible, and people who will never see the inside of an opera house happily fork over truckloads of money for it.

And that’s okay. I’m happy to consider Steven Sondheim as Strauss’ (or Massenet’s, or whomever’s) heir. Sweeney Todd is amazing.

The parts of opera that haven’t been passed down to contemporary romantic musicals are mostly the parts that would seem weird and awkward if they were to appear in a contemporary work.

And thus, I give you Weird Things About Opera:

1. Recitative. If understanding the words is so important, why not just speak them? And what’s with the harpsichord?

2. Foreign languages AND translations from same. If it’s in a foreign language, it’s in a foreign language, and that’s a barrier to accessibility in itself. Translations often seem awkward – the wrong syllables are emphasized, the wrong words are emphasized, and the dirty secret is that hearing the words sung in an unfamiliar language often has the happy effect of obscuring their ridiculousness. Plus, even if you have a brilliant translation, chances are you won’t be able to make out the words anyway when they’re sung. I’ve seen works performed in English that required supertitles.

3. Some people are really disconcerted by seeing a conventionally unattractive singer playing a romantic lead. I find this unfortunate, but that’s beside the point. People who don’t like opera love to joke about “the fat lady” and her presumably screeching voice. Older singers, heavier singers, singers who are a different age or race from the character they are playing – all a part of the operatic tradition as we know it, and all potentially alienating to neophytes no matter how transcendent their voices. Despite this effect, I think this is one of “the good parts” of opera – for what other performers, especially today, can we truly say that talent trumps appearance?

4. The voices. Classical voices are now only heard in the classical music world. Since the introduction of the microphone, that allowed quieter voices to fill big halls, average listeners have preferred their voices softer, breathier, less trained, closer to speech and smaller in range. And this only seems to be getting more and more true – pop voices seem to have gotten breathier and less substantial over time. Operatic voices, to an ear that isn’t used to them, can seem shrill, pushy, and unnatural in contrast. Plus it’s sometimes hard to make out the words. Many people overcome this barrier, and once you overcome it, you’re in for a thrilling experience. But pretending it doesn’t exist is silly.

So, we have a perfectly good modern form popular opera a la Puccini that has none of these problems – the sophisticated musical. Of course new operas should be written, but I’m most interested in them when they’re offering a real alternative to Sondheim et al. I’d rather our crazy modern opera composers kept doing what they’re doing. The world is full of sweet music and it’s easy to find – it’s tougher to find something that challenges me a little, and if that means we sacrifice some accessibility, so be it. The opera I’m most looking forward to seeing next year is Nixon in China. Writing opera in the old style is a bit like writing a new French cabaret chanson – sure, it’s pretty, but is it really giving me anything I can’t get from Piaf and Trenet? Do we need more music for people to lindy hop to?

Where I agree with Opera Rat is in the way the standard repertoire is discussed – mostly concerned with subtle differences between one particular performance and the hundreds of others the reviewer may have seen or listened to. I’d rather talk about what makes an opera interesting or moving – what gives it dramatic and musical force – than analyze the nuances of Gheorghiu’s performance vs. Netrebko’s.

And, part of what makes opera fun is that it’s so different. The emotions are big and florid, costumes are cut for maximum cleavage, it’s a glimpse of a different time and place and it opens up your musical and aesthetic understanding when your ears have been stunted by too much Lady Gaga (or, hell, too much Wolf Parade). The strangeness is what makes it good – otherwise we’d all just listen to Voi che Sapete and Nessun Dorma and dispense with all the troublesome theatrics. The people I know who are interested in opera are interested in it because it’s a little bit strange. If people who might be interested are alienated by snobbery and aggressive fact-hoarding by buffs, that’s bad; but many people won’t be interested at all, and that’s okay. Opera today is a niche interest rather than a mainstream one – alongside other cool things like typography, Werner Herzog movies, and conceptual art. I’d rather have a vibrant, quirky, niche (where people take artistic risks) than bland accessibility.

EDIT: I realized this post makes it sound like I don’t like opera! I assure you, the opposite is the case. I’ve made minor edits to tone down the language.

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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