Diana Damrau as Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Die Zauberflote

Many divas have tried their hand at this role.  No one can match Diana Damrau.  She is the Queen of Night.  She’s beautiful and evil and she scares the living hell out of you. Which is what the character is supposed to do.

When she comes at you  with those eyes you can’t help but cringe. She not only sings the part, she plays the part to the hilt and will tear the stage apart in the process.  Other women sing the role but they don’t act it.  Or vice versa.  Damrau does both to perfection.

I’ve seen Damrau twist arms, throw Paminas across the stage, force them to their knees and generally browbeat them into sobbing puddles.  If you’re cast as Pamina against Damrau’s Queen of Night then you’re plain out of luck.  You don’t have to act scared.  You will be scared.

Here are the song lyrics:

The vengeance of Hell boils in my heart,
Death and despair flame around me!
If Sarastro does not through you feel the pain of death,
Then you will be my daughter nevermore.
Disowned may you be forever,
Abandoned may you be forever,
Destroyed be forever
All the bonds of nature,
If not through you Sarastro becomes pale! (as death)
Hear, Gods of Revenge, hear a mother’s curse!

Poor Pamina.  Well, we don’t get to choose our parents. By the way, those are High Fs Damrau is hitting in the signature notes. And she’s so menacing and exudes such venom when she stalks Pamina across the stage.  It sends a chill up the spine.  She’s ready to devour poor Pamina.

Die Zauberflote is not a true opera. There are spoken parts in the production and a lot of idiotic Masonic ritual garbage.  But no one goes to Die Zauberflote to see that, they go to hear Mozart’s music.  I think it’s safe to say if you don’t believe in the Queen of Night character the entire opera suffers.  Some queens you can’t help but laugh at when you see them. They come across as clowns. You will never laugh at Damrau in this production.  She was made for it, and it for her, and it’s well known throughout the operatic universe this was one of her best performances as the Queen of Night.

Damrau retired this singing part in 2006.  Most opera stars sing the role and then put it away forever because it’s so hard on the voice.  Well, like I said, those are High Fs.  A lot of them.


Leontyne Price Sings Her Farewell in Aida

Leontyne Price was a famous African American singer.  She was best known for her role as Aida, the black slave girl in the opera of the same name.

During the 50s and 60s she endured racism and other humiliations like not being allowed to sleep in the same hotel as the white singers.  Nevertheless her voice and her talent endured and she became one of the best known and best loved singers in the entire pantheon.

Her signature role, as I said, was as the slave girl in Aida.  During this opera Aida realizes she will never return to Ethiopia and she sings of the love and the heartache she has for a land she will never see again.  It’s heartbreaking.  When Ms. Price left the stage, of course her signature song was going to be “O Patria Mia”.  Everyone was waiting for it.  Emotions were already very high. Everyone throughout the world of opera knew how much the song meant to Ms. Price personally, and could only guess what emotions were raging inside her

This was to be her final curtain call as Aida — she was leaving the world of opera forever.  And then the time came when she had to sing the song on stage…and then she had to stand there and endure the fantastic reaction she knew was going to come from the audience.

Yeah.  It brings the house down. Most times those are just meaningless words. Not this time. Ms. Price brought the house down.

Watch as she stands there and endures the waves of love and emotion that break over her.  She’s about to completely crack open and begin sobbing uncontrollably — the audience is already sobbing and shouting “Brava!” — but she can’t break down because if she does the opera is ruined and she has to go on to sing the next song.

Watch it yourself…and try not to cry as the audience breaks down and says goodbye to a true artist.



It’s a “Livin’ Thing”

Anyone who reads my blog knows I like opera.  But unlike some stuffed shirts I don’t believe opera has to be Wagnarian in concept to be opera.

That’s why I want to give you a link to one of the first rock bands to incorporate operatic themes and classical sounds in their music.  When Electric Light Orchestra first started out they were a true orchestra.  In fact, they were more orchestra than rock band which gave them their signature sound.  They weren’t ever referred to as ELO but as Electric Light Orchestra. It was only later they moved away from their classical roots and became E.L.O.

As a result, they were never as good and they quickly vanished.  Deservedly so, imo.

But nevertheless this song, and the blend of rock and classical music, endures. “Livin’ Thing” has a deep orchestral arrangement that  sweetens the song and makes it memorable.  Give it a listen.

“This is Tosca’s Kiss!”

When Puccini’s opera Tosca was first performed the critics savaged it.  They called it a “tawdry, little shocker.”

Puccini had tremendous success with La Boheme the year before.  What kind of success? Imagine Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and American Idol all wrapped into one…and you still wouldn’t come close.  So everyone was looking forward to his next opera. Could he top La Boheme? The critics were certain he could not so they were predisposed to hate Tosca before it was staged.

The public, on the other hand, had very different ideas after they say it.

Tosca is an opera about a flawed woman.  Tosca is a deeply jealous woman in love with a painter.  But there’s a chief of police, Scarpia, who is also in love with Tosca.  He’s a real snake, this Scarpia, and one of the most evil characters in opera.  Intrigue, deception and violence are the foundations to this opera.  It’s the quintessential opera: people are either singing about their undying love for one another or they are screaming pure hate at each other.  There is no middle ground.  Nor should there be for Tosca examines violence and brutality on a fundamental level.  Puccini is saying, “This is violence, and, no, it’s not pretty.”

Because of the kinds of stories I write, and the themes I examine, I really like that approach.

But, back to the opera. Scarpia arrests Tosca’s lover and through his machinations lures her to his lair.  In a memorable scene he says he will relent if Tosca will yield her sexual favors.  Tosca sings a heart breaking aria which questions her religious faith. Finally, she’s had enough, and as Scarpia tries to feel her up she grabs a knife and plunges it into his heart

“This is Tosca’s kiss,” she cries.

Scarpia, as one may imagine, is surprised by this unfortunate turn of events.  But Puccini isn’t done with his “tawdry, little shocker.”  He has Tosca stand over the dying Scarpia and sing triumphantly while holding a dripping knife, “Are you choking on your own "Are you choking on your own blood?"blood?”

Lesson learned. Don’t mess around with Tosca.

So she grabs a note Scarpia wrote which will free her lover, she runs to the castle where he is incarcerated, a mock execution is held but it’s not mock after all because Scarpia is finding his revenge from the grave.  Soldiers run onto the parapet to arrest Tosca for murdering Scarpia but she’s had enough and flings herself off the parapet and screams all the way down and splatters her brains out in the street below.

End of sublime love.  End of Tosca.  End of opera.  Boom, curtain closes.

The public loved it.  And why not?  It has intrigue, deception, torture, extortion, blood, rape, murder, suicide, all wrapped around a pretty good love story.  What’s not to like?

Tosca has a bit of a funny past with its productions as well.  In one of them the director told the soldiers on the parapet, “Just react and take your cue from Tosca.”  So when Tosca leaps to her death they all fall in line and jump after her!  The audience liked that, too, though it was unexpected.  In another production a trampoline was hidden behind the wall so the actress wouldn’t hurt herself when she jumped. So the soldiers rush onto the stage, Tosca bids farewell and jumps…she hits the trampoline and bounces back into sight!  Pretty funny, and one of the little behind the scenes stories that make this opera so delightful.

I really like this opera a lot. If you like blood and violence and torture and sexual perversion, you’ll love Tosca, too.  Give it a peek.

Un Ballo in Maschera: Beautiful Opera Music Marred by a Poor Storyline

Un Ballo in Maschera (The Masked Ball) is one of those operas in which the music is better than the story.

It’s about the assassination of Gustave III of Sweden during a masked ball. That much is historically accurate.  The rest of the opera…not so much, even down to the last scene when the king is dying and forgives his assassin. Moving, yes, but not accurate. It’s one of those operas that can succeed or fail on the performance of a single character. In this case it’s the aria of the gypsy witch Ulrica who prophesies the king’s death. If she’s believable the opera rocks.

This opera was written by Verdi. It has all the usual Verdi touches: forbidden love, flashes of humor, jealousy, assassination, plans within plans.  And it’s not a bad opera. It’s just not all that great. Except for the extraordinary music which blows you away.

It’s the music that makes this opera memorable. It’s as beautiful as anything Verdi ever wrote, and that’s saying a lot.

Opera is funny. You don’t have to listen to a lot of them or watch very many to get a feel for what the art form is about. There aren’t that many operas anyway so if you listen/watch to about a dozen or so you develop an appreciation for what’s being done artistically. Unfortunately, Un Ballo in Maschera isn’t a beginner’s opera. You would do better to watch Aida or Tosca or maybe  Madame Butterfly if you’re starting out and want to learn about opera.

But if you already know something about it, or have been exposed to opera on some level, I think you will appreciate Un Ballo in Maschera.

Give it a peek.

Ulrica prophesies the death of a king....

ELEKTRA: Expressionist Opera by Strauss

Elektra is a modern expressionistic opera full of angst and anger and remorse and revenge.  I’m not a huge fan of expressionism (though I love Edvard Munch’s The Scream and the silent film version of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), the art form which distorts reality to engender emotion.  But, boy, does this opera in question ever work in this opera by Richard Strauss.

But it’s hard to watch because it’s so disturbing and…well, unrelenting.  It’s a modern treatment of the Sophocles tragedy by the same name. Strauss wrote the opera in 1905 when Freud’s theories were beginning to take hold. So father-daughter complexes and female hysteria run rampant throughout this opera. The music is discordant, scraping the nerve endings and laying them bare.  The sets are bizarre and other-worldly, the makeup horrifying — all to bring about an overwhelming feeling of dejection and remorse.

Elektra, mourning the death of her father, Agamemnon, looks dead herself. Her skin is grey, her hair snarled, and her eyes are yellow with lack of sleep as she plots her revenge and scrabbles at her fathers grave. Her murdering mother, Klytamnestra, confronts Elektra in a key scene and confesses she, too, hasn’t been sleeping since the murder of her husband.  “I have had bad nights,” she says.  It makes your skin crawl — it’s that powerful.

Finally, Elektra’s brother, Orestes, shows up and kills everybody, even the servants, because he’s pretty pissed.  Klytamnestra screams off stage as Orestes strikes her down, and Elektra screams back, “Stab her again!”  Finally, Elektra is revenged and as blood drips from the walls of the castle she dances in the gray rain, her bare feet splashing in puddles of bloody rainwater, until she falls dead.  When the screen goes black you sit there for a few moments trying to get your brain into gear and back to reality.  Or what you thought was reality. You’re actually kind of relieved the opera is over because it was so goddamned oppressive…but you also realize you have just witnessed something that, in some small way, has also contributed to your growth (and destruction) as a human being.

I’m not kidding.  This opera really is that powerful. It changes you, turns you inside out, and not necessarily in a good way, but in a necessary way. It’s hard to explain, but that’s expressionism for you.

I highly recommend this opera to anyone who wants to be disturbed. Give it a peek if you have the time. I think you’ll be impressed, and disturbed. 😛

Suspension of Disbelief: Not the Rubicon You Thought It Was

The more I study opera the more I learn about suspension of disbelief at least as far as writing goes, and the human propensity for engaging in it.

Suspension of disbelief is a big thing in opera.  It’s a natural given you are to suspend a lot of disbelief so the opera can move on.  So what if the woman singing the role of a Viking is Asian?  So what if two characters meet and fall in love in five seconds to set up the tragic ending?  So what if a brother and sister, from the very same parents, are black and white?  So what if Brunnhilde’s horse, Grane, NEVER makes an appearance during Gotterdammerung, even when she sings an aria to him and leads him into the funeral pyre at the end?

It doesn’t matter.  You take it on faith Grane is there even if you don’t see him.

Now I’m not saying you can get away with this sort of blatant disregard in fiction.  You can’t.  But you can get away with a hell of a lot besides.  Fantasy is chock full of stuff like this: magic, dragons, elves, demons, etc.  SF is, too: time machines, faster-than-light spacecraft, stellar empires.  All that stuff is garbage.  The physical limitations the universe imposes upon these tropes are real and immutable.  You can’t travel faster than the speed of light because it violates causality. Period.  But we happily accept FTL spacecraft and other nonsense elements like telepathy for the sake of the story.  That’s suspension of disbelief on both the part of the writer and the reader.

And that’s what fascinates me from a human perspective.  Our willingness, or innate need, to want to believe things that are manifestly and demonstrably not true intrigues me.  Okay, you can kind of understand why someone would want to do it in order to be entertained.  They are entering a contract with the writer when they pick up a story. But you can’t cross that line in such a way the story jolts them out of that prepared place they’ve put themselves in.  Opera gets away with a hell of a lot, more than written fiction can, and I’ve yet to understand why, though I suspect it is because reading is entirely mental and opera has dependent qualities of visual and aural cues married to imagination.  But both depend on the audience willing to put aside some degree of skepticism so the story can continue in a logical way. That’s the important thing to remember.

I guess what I’m trying to say is people can be manipulated a lot easier than I originally believed.  That’s a pretty strong lesson for any writer to have learned, and I’m glad I have learned it.  Though there are still boundaries you can’t cross, suspension of disbelief is not the Rubicon I once thought it was.

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