Remembering Tenor Jon Vickers

Canadian tenor Jon Vickers (1926-2015)
Canadian tenor Jon Vickers (1926-2015)

 

The Canadian tenor Jon Vickers, who brought “a colossal voice and raw dramatic intensity” to some of opera’s most powerful roles, passed away on Friday following a battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 88.

After studying at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music, Vickers rose to prominence in the late 1950s and early 60s with appearances at London’s Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera. His recordings suggest that he had an extraordinary ability to lose himself in the character and dramatically “go for broke.” His personality was reportedly volatile and quick-tempered. During a 1975 Dallas Opera performance of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, Vickers broke character to chastise the audience for coughing. You can hear a recording of the incident here.

Here is an excerpt from Vickers’ 1960 recording of Verdi’s Otello with the Rome Opera Orchestra and Chorus. The haunting Dio! mi potevi scagliar is from the third act of Otello. The jealous Otello is losing his grip on reality, believing that Desdemona has been unfaithful with Cassio. Following her exit from the room, he is left alone to ask God, “Why have you afflicted me in this manner?”

This late-Verdi score, which premiered in 1887 (over 15 years after Aida), integrates vocal lines and orchestra in a remarkable way. Following a long chromatic descent into Hell, we hear a numb, obsessively repeated string motive as Otello enters a dark inner world of contemplation:

Here are a few more links:

A La Bohème Masterclass

51af882584fdd556b9e8dc86894435dcOpera, with its rich blend of music, drama and staging, is one of the most complex art forms on the planet. If you’ve ever been curious about the myriad of subtle details that singers encounter as they bring an opera scene to life, watch the clip below from a young artists’ workshop at London’s Royal Opera House. Conductor Sir Mark Elder coaches soprano Susana Gaspar and tenor Michel de Souza in Marcello and Mimì’s duet from Act 3 of Puccini’s lushly romantic La Bohème. Along the way, we gain insight into Puccini’s music.

La Bohème doesn’t open with an overture. Instead, a sudden, exhilarating burst of energy launches us into the first scene set in Marcello and Rodolfo’s modest and chilly flat. As Elder mentions, this music originated in Puccini’s student composition (and Milan Conservatory thesis), Capriccio sinfonicoThe first Act culminates with the intimate duet, O soave fanciulla, sung here by Teresa Stratas and José Carreras in a 1982 Met production.

Watching great singers up close is a reminder that opera singing, by nature, is an athletic endeavor. A tremendous physical effort is made to look easy. In this respect, there’s a side of opera that is pure sport. But, in this masterclass, Mark Elder takes us beyond the mechanics and challenges us to hear the small details that make the drama of La Bohème come alive:

A James Levine Profile

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Yesterday, CBS News’ 60 Minutes aired a profile of James Levine, the conductor credited with building the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra into one of the best ensembles of its kind in the world. The interview details Levine’s return to conducting after two seasons spent recovering from injury. This was Bob Simon’s last interview before his tragic death in a car accident last month. If you missed The Maestro: James Levine, you can watch it here.

Every established conductor was once a student. This short clip shows a young Levine studying with George Szell, the legendary Music Director of the Cleveland Orchestra between 1946 and 1970. Szell would later invite Levine to be his assistant in Cleveland.

Here’s the Overture from Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri from a 1986 Metropolitan Opera production with Levine conducting:

A Sublime Moment from Mozart’s “Così fan tutte”

220px-Croce-Mozart-DetailMozart’s Così fan tutte (“Thus Do They All”) falls under the category of opera buffa, or comic opera. It’s an absurd story of “fiancée swapping,” which ultimately turns out all right in the end.

In a coffeehouse in Naples, two military officers, Ferrando and Guglielmo, boast that their fiancées, Dorabella and Fiordiligi, will never be unfaithful. Don Alfonso makes a wager that, within a day, he can prove the officers wrong. He believes that all women are ultimately fickle. Accepting the wager, Ferrando and Guglielmo pretend to go off to war, but then return in disguise and attempt to seduce the other’s lover.

Amid all of this buffoonery comes one of opera’s most sublimely expressive moments. In the Act 1 trio, Soave sia il vento (“May the wind be gentle”), the women and Alfonso wish the soldiers safe travels as their ship sails. There’s a hint of the calm ocean in the trio’s undulating string lines. But what makes this music so remarkable is the way it transcends the dramatic situation of the opera. We’re briefly transported somewhere else, entirely. The music is deeply expressive, but it can’t fully be described in words.

In a Metropolitan Opera Orchestra musician profile, cellist Kari Docter talks about a life-changing experience which resulted from hearing Mozart’s Soave sia il vento during a Met rehearsal.

Here are Thomas Allen (Don Alfonso), Susanne Mentzer (Dorabella), and Carol Vaness (Fiordiligi) in a 1996 Metropolitan Opera production, conducted by James Levine:

How to Sing Rossini

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Conductor Sir Mark Elder shares some interesting insights on the music of Rossini in this recent masterclass at London’s Royal Opera House. Elder coaches mezzo-soprano Rachel Kelly, who sings Rosina’s cavatina, “Una voce poco fa,” from Act 1, scene II of The Barber of Seville. 

According to Elder, rhythm is the key element of Rossini’s music. The energy of the rhythmic motor keeps the music alive and infuses it with style. Pulse equals life. Elder shows how the combination of elegance, strength and boldness in the introduction instantly establishes Rosina’s character for the audience, before a note is sung.

“Una voce poco fa” is about subtly ruthless determination and seduction. Rosina is confined in the house of the elderly Dr. Bartolo, whom she is supposed to marry. Count Almaviva serenades her from the public square below. Rosina hears only his voice, and falls in love. The Count has disguised himself as Lindoro, a poor student. He wants to be sure that Rosina doesn’t marry him for his money. Read the full synopsis here.

Here are Rosina’s final lines:

Yes, Lindoro will be mine
I’ve swore it, I’ll win.
I let be ruled, I let be guided
I’m obedient, sweet, loving
I let be ruled, I let be guided
But if they touch where my weak spot is
I’ll be a viper and a hundred traps
before giving up I’ll make them fall

Here is a concert performance from 1997 featuring Elder and Slovak coloratura soprano Edita Gruberová:

Here are a few more links:

Rita Shane Sings The Queen of the Night

dramatic coloratura soprano Rita Shane (1940-2014)
dramatic coloratura soprano Rita Shane (1936-2014)

Dramatic coloratura soprano Rita Shane passed away last thursday at the age of 78. Following her 1973 Metropolitan Opera debut as the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, she appeared regularly at the Met in a total of 71 productions. In 1989, Shane joined the faculty of the Eastman School of Music.

You can get a sense of Rita Shane’s brilliance and extensive vocal range in these short excerpts: Ah! Si j’étais coquette (“Ah! if I were flirtatious”) from Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots and O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn (“Tremble not, my dear son”) from Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

The most famous example from The Magic Flute is the “Vengeance Aria” from Act II. The enraged Queen of the Night gives her daughter a knife and implores her to kill Sarastro (Read the synopsis and hear more music from the opera here). Shane brings more than technique to this gruesome aria (below). She captures the ferocious passion of the character.

The role of the Queen of the Night was first performed by Mozart’s sister-in-law, Josepha Hofer, who was known for her wide vocal range. The aria’s high “F” (above high “C”) reaches nearly the upper limit of a soprano’s range.

Here is a translation of the libretto:

Hell’s vengeance boils in my heart;
Death and despair blaze around me!
If Sarastro does not feel the pain of death because of you,
Then you will be my daughter nevermore.

Disowned be forever,
Forsaken be forever,
Shattered be forever
All the bonds of nature
If Sarastro does not turn pale [in death] because of you!
Hear, hear, hear, gods of vengeance, hear the mother’s oath!

Mozart is for the Birds

Papageno from Mozart's Magic Flute
Papageno from Mozart’s Magic Flute

The Magic Flute, Mozart’s bizarre two act comic opera, can be seen as a fairy tale battle between the forces of darkness and light. Like all good fairy tales, at the end of The Magic Flute’s second act, love and happiness triumph. The Singspiel opera (featuring singing as well as spoken dialogue) was written in the prolific final year of Mozart’s life. It premiered in 1791 at the popular Theater aug der Wieden on the outskirts of Vienna. Amid its convoluted story, Masonic symbolism, Enlightenment philosophy and sly political references (the sinister Queen of the Night might be a coded allusion to Austrian Empress Maria Theresa), is Papageno, the bird catcher. He isn’t exactly a main character, but he’s there, nonetheless, through most of the opera (read the synopsis here). In the first performance the role was sung by the opera’s librettist, Emanuel Schikaneder.

Mozart’s music tells us everything we need to know about Papageno as a character. He’s a clownish buffoon, decidedly unheroic, who tries to lure birds with his panflute. But, as the music suggests, he also exhibits a vivacious and contagious passion for life. He’s imperfect, yet amiable and we can relate to him. Here is “Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja” (The birdcatcher am I) from the first scene of Act 1:

You might remember the next excerpt from the movie, Amadeus. Here is “Ein Mädchen Oder Weibchen” (A maiden or a wife), in which Papageno longs for female companionship:

At the end of The Magic Flute, Papageno’s magic bells summon Papagena. The couple dreams of the many future children they will have.

The Magic Flute Overture

Mozart and Schikaneder were both Freemasons and lodge brothers. Judith Eckelmeyer’s analysis of The Magic Flute includes a discussion of the work’s Masonic symbolism as well as the use of the “golden mean” and attention to mathematical proportion. Three is a significant number in Masonic symbolism, and patterns of three occur throughout the opera. In the middle of the overture listen for three repeated chords.

Here is James Levine and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra:

Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.

The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between. 

-Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Rossini’s Semiramide Overture

Rossini“Fun” may be the best way to describe a Rossini opera overture. Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) was a master of long, expectation-building crescendos, sparkling, virtuosic woodwind solos and musical jokes, which included sudden, loud, out of place chords. These operas would have been considered popular entertainment-drama mixed with sports, in the form of the vocal acrobatics of the singers.

Recently, I ran across this exciting 1990 Metropolitan Opera performance of Rossini’s Semiramide Overture. As you listen, pay attention to the great sense of style in the playing and consider what elements make this music so much fun. Can you hear musical conversations taking place? Do the melodies and the sounds of the instruments suggest characters, distinct personas or dramatic situations?

Read the history and synopsis of the two act opera, based on a Voltaire tragedy, here.

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