In the year that I've worked with Oliver I've been impressed time and time again by the depth of his knowledge about opera (and classical music generally), which is always delivered with a sense of pure joy in the music and without a whiff of condescension or pretension. Oliver is a wonderful singer and active booster of opera in Chicago. You can check out his website www.vocalartschicago.com, or listen to Opera Box Score, the radio show he co-hosts, on Monday nights at 9pm on WNUR 89.3 FM in Chicago (or as a podcast, wherever you get those).
A queer playlist of song and opera
A very intelligent friend of mine proposes that the order in which you prioritize the three basic components of music (melody, harmony, rhythm) can help others understand your preferences. After thinking about this, I did come to the conclusion that for me harmony is the least important component, and that, being a singer myself, melody reigns. To this confession, I add my need for recognizable form and a preference for expression over beauty.
Die Zauberflöte, K.620 / Act 1: O zittre nicht...Ist's auch denn Wirklichlkeit - Cristina Deutekom, Stuart Burrows, Wiener Philharmoniker, Sir Georg Solti (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) The Queen of the Night’s entrance aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Considering the above premise, this selection might as well be my own personal theme song. The Queen of the Night is the most magical part of Mozart’s last opera. It was one of the first arias and performances I fell in love with and committed to heart as a teenaged fledgling opera queen. The form is highly recognizable for anyone who regularly listens to opera. It begins with what is called Recitativo Accompagnato – the more declamatory, speaky-type of singing, but accompanied by the full orchestra. Introducing a character with Accompagnato musically signals their hierarchy. The Queen is telling her audience not to be afraid even though she just deus ex machina’d her entrance. Then she begins a lament – she describes how her daughter was abducted. Finally, the mood changes one more time into a highly rhythmic and exciting showcase for vocal fireworks (called coloratura) in which she promises her daughter’s hand in marriage for her rescuer, culminating in a VERY high note – a top F above high C. This vocal spectacle is meant to impress the audience with technical razzmatazz and affiliates the Queen with a style of singing that was beginning to go out of style (opera seria) in favor of dramatic realism. The singer here, a Dutch “dramatic coloratura” soprano named Cristina Deutekom, has a very controversial technique for articulating all of those fast notes. You will hear exactly what I am talking about – it sounds as if she is gargling and singing at the same time. I am crazy for that weird noise and even as a 15-year old was attracted to the ugly-beautiful.
Vedi quanto adoro ancora ingrato!, D.510 - Cecilia Bartoli, András Schiff (Franz Schubert) A mock-operatic song by Franz Schubert from the perspective of Dido, abandoned by Aeneas. It’s hard to listen to opera out of context and even harder to explain it. This song, superiorly performed by the academically curious Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli, serves as a nice transition away from opera while capitalizing on its recognizable forms (similar to the Queen of the Night entrance aria, minus the gargling). Bartoli is one of the most innately “musical” singers of any generation. She is always able to find the essence of a song and sound entirely original in music that has been performed for hundreds of years. This scena probably was composed as an exercise in Italian operatic style. Schubert didn’t write Italian opera, but in the hands of Bartoli, one could imagine him doing it very well. Listen to how she shades the most affecting words like “lasciarmi,” (leave me) “m’inganni,” (you deceive me) “affani” (pain). She brings this much detail to everything she sings.
Zefiro torna e di soavi accenti - Nicholas Mulroy, Nicholas Hurndall Smith, Eligio Quinteiro, Joy Smith, Catherine Pierron (Claudio Monteverdi) A chaconne by Claudio Monteverdi. Chaconnes are 17th century House music. Pure rhythm. This is a British “band” called I Fagiolini. In the Early Music community (the Brooklyn of mainstream classical), we call ensembles “bands.” This band has a lot of different plucked instruments that collectively are called the continuo section. Continuo is all the rage these days. Calling out the continuo band is like the Early Music secret handshake and I am sharing that with you because if you read this blog, you are okay in my book. The text of this duet is evocative of pastoral love. Shepherds hooking up in the hay while the sun shines on them and the breeze cools their sweat. And we have a pair of lads singing to/with each other. Delightful.
Nacht und Träume D827 - Christoph Prégardien/Michael Gees (Franz Schubert) A tragic song by Schubert. Nacht und Traüme may be one of the most famous works in the canon of classical art song (the German word is Lied, more common in the plural Lieder). Schubert was both a pioneer and master of the Lied – he wrote over 600 of them. This one was composed from his sick bed. In 1822, Schubert contracted syphilis and wrote a lot of great music. I like to believe that he got the stigmatizing disease as some kind of cruel punishment for trying to behave in a heteronormative way. There is little doubt that he was a homosexual. In this context, Nacht und Traüme can be interpreted as Schubert’s own longing to retreat into his dreams. A good song to listen to in a dark room. Alone.
Chansons grises: No. 5, L'heure exquise - Philippe Jaroussky (Reynaldo Hahn) A post-coital song by the gay composer Reynaldo Hahn, former lover of Marcel Proust, with poetry by Paul Verlaine, former lover of Arthur Rimbaud, sung by a very fancy French countertenor (a relatively innovative idea considering that this voice type used to be relegated to church music). The song is perfection and one of the queerest things your ears will ever hear.
Von ewiger Liebe, Op. 43/1: Dunkel, wie dunkel in Wald und in Feld - Nathalie Stutzmann (Johannes Brahms) A dialogue song by Johannes Brahms about a couple fleeing from the woman’s family, the man feeling anxious and tortured by his sense of unworthiness. After the initial narration, a description of dark night and uncertainty, the torment felt by the man brings the song to its first climax – Philip Glass-like intensity in the piano part. A calm takes over the song, the woman speaks. She explains that their love is stronger than iron, which can be softened by fire. French contralto Nathalie Stutzmann (with her regular collaborator, pianist Inger Södergren) is a phenomenon. Now late in her career, Stutzmann is not only singing, but conducting, and sometimes doing both at the same time. Look her up on YouTube. She is a soulful and intellectual artist with one of the most gloriously androgynous voices who employs the full spectrum of vocal colors in this song. This is as perfect a performance as I have ever heard of Von ewiger Liebe.
Reincarnations, Op. 16: III. The Coolin - Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir, Paul Spicer (Samuel Barber) A choral song with a similar dramatic theme as the Brahms song above – a setting of an Irish poem by the (homosexual) American composer Samuel Barber. This is a piece that is just so damned beautiful, even if you can’t make out the words, which are about two bodies staying warm under a single coat, hands touching, and drinking goat milk. A good song to be performed at a wedding ceremony for the lactose-sensitive - amongst whom I count myself. I wish there were more time on my introductory playlist. Choral music is the most egalitarian form.
Sept mélodies, Op. 2: No. 5, Sérénade italienne by - Bruno Laplante, Janine Lachance (Ernest Chausson) This song should have been included in the soundtrack to Call Me By Your Name. It’s about riding a boat with the beloved – the piano is the breeze, the water, and the scenery passing by. The poet is recognizing and documenting his surroundings in a moment of happiness. Ernest Chausson’s Sérénade itallienne has one of the most wickedly difficult piano parts, played here with nonchalant virtuosity by Janine LaChance. Bruno LaPlante’s youthful baritone makes my case for this being a song about Elio and Oliver on the Italian coast, ecstatically on their way to an evening of love-making.
Loveliest Of Trees - Thomas Allen, Malcolm Martineau (George Butterworth) George Butterworth was best known for his settings of A. E Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. There is too much to say about how the tragic Housman’s unrequited homosexual longings inspired much of the poetry in A Shropshire Lad, and how ironic it is that Butterworth chose some of the most pacifist and homoerotic of those poems for his song cycle of the same name, only to die himself in WWI’s Battle of the Somme. Loveliest of Trees – here performed by a legendary British baritone, Sir Thomas Allen, and an iconic singer collaborator-pianist Malcolm Martineau – is the first song of this cycle, full of nostalgia, that makes me feel like an old man just hearing it. “Now of my three score years and ten, Twenty will not come again….”
Cantata "Armida abbandonata", HWV 105: No. 2, Aria, "Ah! crudele e pur ten vai" (Soprano) - Véronique Gens/Les Basses Réunies (George Frideric Handel) Some people complain that baroque vocal music is too ornamental, too virtuosic to truly communicate a text with authenticity. Sometimes, I have to agree with them, even though it is the beautiful artifice which can inspire awe and make simple emotions feel majestic. But then there are continuo arias like this one from Handel’s cantata based on a scene from Torquato Tasso's epic poem Gerusalemme liberata. A continuo aria is music stripped down to its most austere elements: voice, bass, and sparsely realized harmony (notice the lack of violins or other melodic instruments to compete with the singer). In the High Baroque, a composer assigned only the most skilled singers to perform a continuo aria – their tone quality and ideas about improvisation completely exposed. Ah! crudel, e pur ten’ vai as performed by French soprano Véronique Gens would have gotten the pass from Handel as it cuts right to the heart.
Così fan tutte, K. 588, Act 1 Scene 12: No. 17, Aria, "Un'aura amorosa del nostro tesoro" (Ferrando) - Léopold Simoneau/Philharmonia Orchestra/Herbert von Karajan, Herbert von Karajan, Philharmonia Orchestra (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte is my favorite opera of all time. The libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte marks the third and final collaboration with Mozart, and some say that it is the weakest of the three for its highly improbable and ridiculous plot. Maybe this is why I cherish this opera so much. It pushes the music to explore the extremities of the human condition. This aria near the midpoint of the opera, sung tenderly by an androgynous yet elegant French-Canadian tenor Leopold Simoneau, represents the end of innocence. After Un’aura amorosa is sung, all the characters will become the worst versions of themselves and will need each other’s and the audience’s forgiveness. We are all horrible, the title of the opera suggests. Simoneau is an unparalleled Mozartian. In this performance of Ferrando’s homage to Love, he takes one of the most deceptively difficult arias in the canon, and spins it forth with an impossibly sweet tone laced with tears.
La Rondine / Act 1: "Chi il bel sogno di Doretta" - Renée Fleming, English Chamber Orchestra, Jeffrey Tate (Giacomo Puccini) The release of Renée Fleming’s album The Beautiful Voice in 1998 was An Event. Every voice major and operaphile I knew owned it. Fleming’s voice at age 37 was indisputably beautiful. She was able to milk every note for its expressive value, as made evident by this Puccini aria Chi il bel sogno di Doretta. We loved her for her decadence. The aria starts out as a song performed by the hostess of a party for her guests. The piano introduction is unusual for opera, but appropriate for the situation. Midway though the song, Magda, a courtesan, becomes wistful and begins to imagine how her life might be different if she loved for the sake of love instead of for material possessions. You can hear the change in mood at the lines “Ah, mio sogno! Ah, mia vita!” (Ah, my dream! Ah, my life)
Book of Songs, Book 1: Come again, sweet love doth now invite - John Dowland, Michael Slattery, La Nef (Sean Dagher - arr. S. Dagher and M. Slattery) John Dowland, a late Renaissance composer, is remebered for his melancholy songs for voice and lute. He did write a few uptempo numbers like “Come again, sweet love doth now invite.” American tenor Michael Slattery’s arrangement of “Come again” transforms the serenade into a full blown jam-session for Canadian early music ensemble La Nef. The entire album Dowland in Dublin is a treasure and serves as good introduction to Dowland’s enduring melodies (perhaps more engaging than Sting’s album Songs from the Labyrinth).
King Arthur, or The British Worthy (1691) / Act 4: Passacaglia - "How happy the lover" - Ritornello - "For love ev'ry creature" - "No joys are above" - "In vain are our graces" - "Then use the sweet blessing" - Mark Tucker, Gerald Finley, Nancy Argenta, Caroline Ashton, Rachel Bevan, Carol Hall, James Oxley, Simon Davies, Simon Birchall, The English Concert Choir, The English Concert, Trevor Pinnock (Henry Purcell) A passacaglia in a baroque opera signals to the audience that the end of the evening is near (start gathering your furs, and finish your brandy!). The passacaglia or passacaille is a dance form with a repeating bass over which the soloists
(instrumentalists, singers) seem to be improvising – like modern day street dance. Here is my favorite passacaglia from Henry Purcell’s semi-opera King Arthur. The text is explicitly erotic and the various combinations of voice types singing in ensemble are a euphoric, non-judgmental expression of sexuality .
Norma: "Deh! Non volerli vittime" by Leyla Gencer, Orchestra Del Teatro Alla Scala, Milano After the brothel-like fun of the King Arthur passacaglia, the last selection for this maiden playlist is pure shame. The finale of Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma finds the titular character about to sacrifice herself on the funeral pyre for having betrayed her country and violating sacred oaths. Norma reveals that she is a mother to two children fathered by the enemy of her people. She asks that her children be spared. This is highly operatic, almost to the point of perversion. I would never introduce someone to opera by playing the finale of Norma, especially not this singer – a connoisseur’s choice, but I figure if you’ve gotten this far, you might as well hear the deep cuts. Leyla Gencer was a polarizing artist. She sang with all of her guts, and her attacks on the beginnings of phrases here (at the end of one of the most difficult and comprehensive roles in all of opera ) are pure animal. The self-injury of singing along to this performance is cathartic.