Now Route 7 is close to the center of my life; when I was in college it was Route 2; when I was a boy it was Route 29. Route 29 led to Saratoga, and that’s where I was last Saturday night. I went to see a Kander and Ebb show, “Curtains.” Not many community theaters have the guts to put up a show that parodies community theater. The quality of the production I saw made me realize Saratoga’s Home Made Theater had little to fear. Not to harp on this, but companies like this one are of great importance to me. Not everything that lives is in New York City.
About two decades ago, big music schools decided that music theatre wasn’t all that bad. Somebody told them it was very difficult for a twenty-four year old artist to fill a hall singing a recital. Young singers need to look good and move well on stage. Eastman resurrected a long-lost Gershwin show. This spring Curtis brought back an alumnus to sing Wozzeck who had just made a name for himself on Broadway as Judd in Oklahoma. It pleased the powers that be in these king and queen-making institutions to erase or at least blur the distinction between what high-fallutin’ singing was and how people sang on Broadway. Some wonderful things have come from this. We now have stars of the musical theatre like Audra McDonald who sing with subtlety and beauty—no honking, no belting. If only we had shows good enough for them.
Lo, I am with you always.
Sometimes I think all is lost. Mostly when I go to a “live in HD” event. The other day I went down to the Mahaiwe to see “All’s Well that Ends Well” from the National in London and found the theater half empty. No Helen Mirren, I guess. At first it seems real good watching one of these things. It’s clear. It doesn’t force you to look at what you don’t want to see. In this case there was subtle and passionate acting. But after forty-five minutes or so, there just doesn’t seem to be anything up front – no tension, no real sound, no humans. There is a cold poltergeist just in front of the proscenium. He’s invisible. I guess I’m the only one who sees him. And he’s separating me from the great ones. And he’s keeping their voices from entering not my ears, but my imagination.
Two marvelous young singers are appearing in our area. If you want to see what singing acting really is, go see Kara Cornell in Peter Brook’s “The Tragedy of Carmen”, at Hubbard Hall in Cambridge, New York. Voice, face, and body are all one thing. She makes opera a completely believably speech.
In James Levine’s Don Giovanni a couple of weeks ago with the Tanglewood Fellows, I first heard Devon Guthrie (Donna Elvira). She is appearing in our area again in the Bard Music Festival’s 5:30 pm concert on August 23rd at Bard College, singing Eva in excerpts from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. This is a vivid and highly intelligent young artist. I can’t wait to hear her again.
Here I am riding home on a dark, late summer night. The windows are down, crickets are singing. Making this trip is my Russian connection. Rachmaninoff and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Where I just was was where I stood and sang a few feet away from the death throes of Norman Treigle’s Boris. Nobody knows about him now, but he was a singing actor with the singularity of a Chaliapin or a Callas. Or maybe Callas and Chaliapin had the singularity of a Norman Treigle. I cannot be in Saratoga without his memory prompting me. Rachmaninoff once said that early in his career that he composed for the sound of Chaliapin’s voice, and later in his career for the sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Each year when I get to SPAC the orchestra seems younger. This was my chance to hear the Symphonic Dances he wrote for them, played by another great collective, three or four generations away now. I have long admired the intention, the glue that makes this darkest of American orchestras show us a macro kind of phrasing, how weight makes a line as effectively as detail. if the weight leans forward beautifully enough. Would they still have the sound, would they even know the sound? Would it matter if they had the sound? Sure would to me. Their sound through the decades has formed my idea of the Slavic center. A dark space, a hut, a cathedral with a sharp edge of flame. Is it a hearth fire or the apocalypse?
All my performing life Die Meistersinger has been more a polemic than a performance. It goes around the music world as a political document like the John Passion. Performances are sold on the basis of political incorrectness. I have been hearing Meistersinger all the time this summer. I have found myself more moved than ever before by the sad humanity of the work. Maybe it’s being a little older.
The two great operas of the 17th century are Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. After the fundamental innovations Monteverdi formulated, opera was born as a heightened expression of the text. In a way the technique was like digital technology, a relatively small number of compositional units combined with great dexterity to express the gamut of human emotion. Voices and a small number of instruments, the continuo group, formed together a single speech. Even decades after Monteverdi, Purcell gives us a music which comes directly off the words. It heightens speech.
I first talked to Michael Steinberg on stage. The work was Schoenberg’s massive “Gurrelieder”. I was singing the part of the Bauer, and he was taking the part of Der Sprecher, a role written in Sprechstimme, halfway between speaking and singing. Michael’s German, remembered from childhood, always had a kind of English tinge to it, and he was an elfin presence anyway. I remember particularly the physical way he intoned the last lines: “Erwacht, Erwacht, ihr Blumen zur Wonne” with all his might and main, his small body shaking. Michael had a child’s kind of wonder. Sitting on stage next to each other, he lost no time in giving me a quick review of an operatic performance I had just sung.