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:

“America” in Simple and Compound Time

Chita Rivera in West Side Story
Chita Rivera in West Side Story

Conductor, composer, pianist, educator, music philosopher…Leonard Bernstein’s whirlwind career was a complex mix of these versatile roles. Perhaps as a result, when it came to Bernstein’s Broadway music, outside influences were constantly creeping in, from West Side Story’s Copland-like Somewhere Ballet sequence and the dueling-keys of the Finale (a reference to the final bars of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustrato a hint of Puccini in the soaring and harmonically searching Lonely Town from On the Town. 

Bernstein couldn’t resist writing a 12-tone fugue for West Side Story’s Cool, a sly tip of the hat to the atonal concert music of composers such as Schoenberg and Berg, and the last thing you would expect on the popular Broadway stage. The Cool Fugue’s disguised tone row may be a great metaphor for what was arguably Bernstein’s greatest accomplishment: the ability to break down barriers for a whole generation, demystify “difficult” music, and show a wide audience that classical music is really just “cool.”

Bernstein most obviously broke the traditional Broadway mold in the area of rhythm and meter. The songs of West Side Story are far removed from the traditional “boom-chick” 32-bar Tin Pan Alley style. While reflecting on writing the lyrics for West Side Story, Stephen Sondheim has said, “one of the things I learned from him was not always necessarily to think in terms of 2-, 4- and 8-bar phrases.”

For an example, listen to the complex Latin cross-rhythms in the opening of America. There are four distinct rhythmic layers. By the time the bass pizzicato enters, our sense of downbeat and upbeat is delightfully unstable. But keep listening, and you’ll hear America’s real rhythmic innovation: alternating measures of 6/8 time, a compound meter based on a feeling of three (three eighth notes filling out two beats) and 3/4 time, a simple meter based on a feeling of two (two eighth notes for each of the three quarter notes). The two rhythmic “feels” fight each other, suggesting a musical melting pot akin to the ethnic melting pot at the heart of the song:

Alternating time signatures2.gif

Looking back on West Side Story’s earth shattering opening night on Broadway in September, 1957, Sondheim remembers that the audience sat through the first half of Act 1 with disturbing reverence, as if they had forgotten they were at a musical. It was Chita Rivera (Anita) and America which brought the audience to life, and provided the right emotional release at a crucial moment in the story.

In celebration of the lead up to Independence Day on Friday, let’s listen to the original Broadway cast recording of America. Keep an ear out for the irregular rhythm outlined in the bass line and pay attention to the way it fits with the other voices. Notice little details like the flute line, suggesting “tropical breezes” (0:27) and later an exotic bird song from the jungle (0:48). At times, you may be reminded of Aaron Copland’s El Salón México:

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"Vissi d’arte" from Tosca

Unknown-2Through the expressive power of music, opera conveys the deepest and most complex human emotions. It allows us to enter the psyche of characters and experience the drama on a gut level. Opera, with its far flung story lines and sung libretto, can’t be approached literally, as if you’re watching a movie or a play. It has to be experienced as metaphor…a story unfolding through music.

Vissi d’arte (“I Lived for Art”) is one of the most famous arias from Giacomo Puccini’s three act opera, Tosca, written in 1900. It’s an intimate and despairing prayer, sung by Tosca in the second act, as she faces the torture and execution of her beloved Mario Cavaradossi at the hands of the Baron Scarpia. The synopsis of the entire opera is here.

Here is Vissi d’arte, sung by American soprano Leontyne Price:

Here is an English translation:

[quote]I lived for art, I lived for love,
I never harmed a living soul!
With a discreet hand
I relieved all misfortunes I encountered.
Always with sincere faith
my prayer
rose to the holy tabernacles.
Always with sincere faith
I decorated the altars with flowers.
In this hour of grief,
why, why, Lord,
why do you reward me thus?
I donated jewels to the Madonna’s mantle,
and offered songs to the stars and heaven,
which thus shone with more beauty.
In this hour of grief,
why, why, Lord,
ah, why do you reward me thus?[/quote]

The aria’s opening descending line, with its impressionist parallel harmony, gives us a sense of Tosca’s anguish. The music seems numb. Tosca’s intimate moment of reflection is not a prayer rooted in faith but in desperation and hopelessness. Yet, as the aria unfolds, Puccini matches Tosca’s bitter words with one of the most beautiful, soaring melodies imaginable. For me, this irony is what makes Vissi d’arte especially powerful. Through Puccini’s music, we gain access to the full, complex spectrum of Tosca’s emotions.

Throughout Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Broadway score for The Phantom of the Opera there are many clever nods to opera. I’m always struck by the similarities between the melody of All I Ask of You  and Puccini’s Vissi d’arte.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Finale, Act 2[/typography]

The second act concludes with Tosca fatally stabbing Scarpia. Listen to the way Puccini’s music builds tension throughout the scene. Scarpia’s fate is foreshadowed by the icy woodwind chord “Wait.” (1:46):

As Tosca solemnly places the candle next to Scarpia’s body (8:20) the earthly world (the low strings) meets the supernatural (the woodwinds and harp). Drawing back in terror (8:54), Tosca is suddenly overcome with the full realization of what has happened. Puccini denies us the stable harmonic conclusion we would expect at the end of an act. Instead, as the curtain falls, the music abruptly modulates, mirroring Tosca’s visceral shock and confusion.