To travelers on dark English roads in the 17th and 18th centuries, highwaymen were dangerous criminals. But to the general public, before and after, these mysterious bandits, some of whom styled themselves as fallen gentlemen or Cavaliers, were glamorous figures. Ever since, they've been the subject of song and story.
The Beggar's Opera, featuring a love story surrounding the condemned highwayman Macheath, was a mega-hit when it debuted in 1728 and continues to be performed. (This video is from the 1983 version, featuring Roger Daltrey as Macheath.)
With all due respect to Adam Ant and Roger Daltrey, to me the highwayman will always be the romantic title character of Alfred Noyes' 1906 poem "The Highwayman," here set to music by Loreena Mckennitt.
Glamour, however, always conceals something, and in the case of glamorous outlaws, that something is often neither particularly attractive nor even impressive--as this debunking of Dick Turpin, one of Britain's most famous highwaymen, demonstrates.
I want a red dress. I want it flimsy and cheap, I want it too tight, I want to wear it until someone tears it off me. I want it sleeveless and backless, this dress, so no one has to guess what’s underneath.
I suspect there are many women who sometimes fantasize about what it would be like to be boldly uninhibited about their sensuality. I know my wife sometimes does, and one of the fictional characters who fascinates her is Carmen (whether in the opera or the flamenco film). This story of a lustful gypsy who shamelessly seduces whatever man she chooses fascinates a lot of people—it has been the basis for more than 50 films, musicals, and dance works.
We plan to travel to London in October, and I discovered that Bizet’s Carmen will be playing at the Royal Opera House. So I located a dress-rehearsal video of Elïna Garanča, the mezzo soprano scheduled to sing the title role. My wife loved the red and blue costume and the staging. Here is that dress rehearsal video (not of the production we would see):
Carmen takes as her lover whatever man interests her at the moment, and then abandons him when he begins to bore her. Similarly, later in her poem Addonizio writes:
I want to walk like I’m the only woman on earth and I can have my pick. I want that red dress bad. I want it to confirm your worst fears about me, to show you how little I care about you or anything except what I want.
Poor Freud. I wonder if he ever imagined that this is what women sometimes want, even if perhaps temporarily, or even if, for most women, perhaps only in fantasy. (Here are links to Addonizio’s whole poem, as well as Virginia’s earlier post on red dresses.)
[Red dress photo by inottawa, and used under the Flickr Creative Common's license.]
Anyone who has heard a small child say, “Read it again, read it again,” knows that children love repetition. They love audible patterns of all kinds, as Dr. Seuss realized. The number of sound patterns in the following two lines is fascinating:
“And NOW comes an act of Enormous Enormance! No former performers performed this performance!”
Such lines were never intended to be read silently, they were intended to be performed by someone reading to a child. If a word like “Enormance” was needed for sound, then Dr. Seuss made it up. Children respond because hearing such patterns performed out loud creates a kind of magic spell.
Children’s love of patterned language is not some temporary madness, it’s part of being human. We retain our ability to enjoy language created for oral presentation all our lives. Such language has its greatest impact when we hear it presented, rather than when we read it silently. And hearing such language performed by a great vocal interpreter remains a magical experience.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw the film version of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milkwood. I felt almost drunk on words as I heard Richard Burton’s glorious voice read Thomas’s resonant lines. Burton, seen at right as a young star, was, of course, also a great actor. The play was first written for radio, and you can hear the beginning here. Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, and Peter O’Toole, along with many other fine actors, are in the film version. (You can get get a feel for the visual quality of the film here, but only by enduring a hideously over-hyped theatrical trailer.)
Another way to make words audible is to intone them, to sing them. This has long been a way to give special meaning to the words of religious ceremonies. It can also work with the lyrics of popular songs. With some songs, witty rhymes can be a major source of delight, as with these gems from Warren Zevon’s “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” (I’ll quote the female version of the lines, which are used in the video below. Zevon’s original version was from a male perspective):
He really worked me over good, He was a credit to his gender. He put me through some changes, Lord, Sort of like a Waring blender
Well, I met a boy in the Vieux Carré Down in Yokahama. He picked me up, and he threw me down: He said, “Please don't hurt me, Mama.”
These lines are clever on the page, but make a stronger effect when performed by someone with a rich voice like Linda Ronstadt (just as was the case with Richard Burton reading Dylan Thomas).
But there was nothing timid about her voice: it was a force of nature. Like Richard Burton, her ability to use that voice to magical effect would bring fame, fortune, and glamorous relationships. Burton’s second wife was Elizabeth Taylor, and Ronstadt’s personal life has included relationships with men such as Star Wars creator George Lucas and Jerry Brown when he was governor of California. While singing, Ronstadt could dramatically change the character of her voice (as Burton could do as an actor). She begins “Long Long Time” by singing two phrases in a young-girl’s voice, then suddenly her voice becomes that of a mature, aggrieved woman. Her performance becomes a drama, and her ability to transform her voice allows us to hear different emotional qualities embodied in the sound of her voice itself.
Her appearance could seem just as changeable. She could variously seem vulnerable, sexy, innocent, buoyant, or world-weary. She could seem to be the girl next door dumping her boyfriend (“You’re No Good”), or the personification of loneliness (“Someone to Lay Down Beside Me”). Rolling Stone dubbed her “Rock’s Venus,” and her poster decorated countless dorm room walls. Writer Phillip K. Dick was obsessed with her, and she appears as a persona, “Linda Fox,” in his novel Valis. He wrote elsewhere, “My fantasy number that I run in my head is, I discover Linda Ronstadt, and am remembered as the scout for Capitol who signed her. I would have wanted that on my gravestone.”
While researching this post, I was surprised to learn from a NY Times article that Ronstadt felt her singing had been most influenced by opera star Maria Callas.
Emmylou [Harris] and I are both Maria Callas fans. We listen to that all the time. She's the greatest chick singer ever.
I learn more about bluegrass singing, more about singing Mexican songs, more about singing rock-and-roll from listening to Maria Callas records than I ever would from listening to pop music for a month of Sundays.
In 2006 Opera News wrote that “Nearly thirty years after her death, [Callas is] still the definition of the diva as artist.” Callas had the same power we have been discussing: an ability to color her voice, to make words audible in an extraordinarily vibrant, emotion-laden way—an ability which allowed listeners to have almost magical experiences. Few people thought Callas was gifted with the most purely “beautiful” operatic voice of the time, but the way she would sometimes shape her voice and performance for dramatic effect could leave audiences stunned. Callas was also a great actress on stage. Here’s a video of her bringing the house to its feet at the Paris Opera in 1958. Even during a thunderous standing ovation that temporarily stops the performance, she continues to act—she never breaks character.
[Reading before bedtime photograph by Flickr user jeff, the rhino under the Creative Commons license. His photostream is here. The Linda Ronstadt photo is from the Wikimedia Commons.]
Santa Fe Opera performances take place after dark in a beautiful open-air theater that sits like a fantastic sculpture on colorful sandstone hills a few miles north of the city. The glamorous building promises a glamorous experience.
Opera is the most costly and extravagant live performance art, and audience members often attend opera looking their finest. (Attending opera performances were the most glamorous occasions in the films Pretty Woman and Moonstruck.) And even though casual wear is acceptable for summer opera festivals like Santa Fe, most attendees dress for the occasion. For example, to attend one performance, my wife wore blousing, black Yael Orgard pants, a black, asymmetrical Japanese-designed top, and a woven Randy Darwall scarf. Because the nights were cool, she wore the pants again to the second production, this time with a long-sleeved black devoré top by Carter Smith. (She joked that she had almost “forgotten” to bring dress clothes, so that she would “have had to” buy new ones.)
The audience dresses stylishly in part because opera tends to be a refuge for “style” itself. A recent issue of Opera News focuses on the issue of style, and in one article Philip Kennicott expresses concern about historical and economic pressures that threaten to create a kind of flatness and depthlessness in our cultural experiences. He argues that opera struggles against those pressures because “A mysterious force within the opera house—the will to style—keeps the art form vital and alive.”
Even comic operas include displays of vocal virtuosity that remove the means of expression from that of the everyday world. From its beginnings in Florence at the end of the 16th century, opera has centered on characters that voice their feelings with passionate expressiveness. People go the opera hoping to experience expressive power, theatrical illusions, and enchanting productions. And they often dress so that they too become part of the glamorous ambiance.
On July 31 we saw a wonderfully enchanting performance of Mozart’sDon Giovanni (photo at right). (Da Ponte’s libretto creates a marvelous tragicomic mix of peasants, servants, nobles, and a living statue. Mozart’s ability to embody this in music is uncanny.) The cast was exceptionally strong and well balanced, a notable achievement for an opera with several challenging roles. The sets and costumes contributed handsomely, the orchestra played brilliantly, and the performance was a delight from beginning to end.
Santa Fe Opera has a long, laudable history of commissioning new operas, and on July 29 we saw this summer’s premiere, The Letter, based on Somerset Maughan’s 1927 play. The play has been the basis of two films, the second one starring Bette Davis.
The plot in a nutshell is that Leslie murders her lover Geoff when he tries to end their relationship. Leslie then claims Geoff tried to rape her, and that she shot him (six times) in self-defense. Unfortunately, Geoff’s mistress (he must have been busy) has a letter from Leslie asking Geoff to meet him on the day she shot him, a letter which makes it clear they had had a ongoing relationship. Howard, a lawyer friend of Leslie and her husband, bribes the mistress to obtain the letter, and, without this incriminating evidence, she is found not guilty. A good operatic setup.
The sets by Hildegard Bechtler were beautiful and evocative, especially her use of billowing curtains and a gap in the set that revealed the mountains to the west. Fashion designer Tom Ford’s costumes created a wonderful 1930s feel, and looked more like fine clothes than costumes. The performance presented the opera well. Soprano Patricia Racette was a powerful presence as Leslie Crosbie. I was somewhat disappointed with the voice of Mika Shigematsu as the mistress, but she was nonetheless convincing in the role.
The libretto was adapted by Terry Teachout and the music was written by Paul Marovec. It was the first opera for both, and on the whole it was successful. The audience response was enthusiastic, and the evening enjoyable. Nonetheless, the opera has weaknesses.
The Letter was advertised as an “opera noir.” Unfortunately, there were unintended comic laughs in the first scene. For example, just after we witness Leslie shoot Geoff six times (he was dead after the first two), she tells her Head Man, “It was an accident.” After that it took the audience several minutes to realize that this was a dark, rather than comic, opera.
Because words usually take longer to sing than to speak, librettist Terry Teachout had to condense Maugham’s play considerably to have the opera run 100 minutes. Perhaps a slightly longer opera would have been better. Our experience of film noir causes us to anticipate some witty repartee, while the condensed lines sometimes felt generic and abstract. One sequence ran: “I love you!” “You must die!” “What is truth?” “What is right?” “And where is the light?” “What is love?” Late in the opera, one of the opera’s most memorable lines, “I have murdered my heart,” occurred at the end of an aria for Leslie that otherwise did little more than recap her situation.
Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Moravec is a fine composer, and he sets text well. The music moved along at a brisk pace, though at times the construction seemed almost phrase by phrase. The orchestration was generally good, but it occasionally overwhelmed the singers, especially his use of loud brass. On the whole, I agree with the cute twenty-something sales woman, who expressed her reaction to me in a shoe store the next day: “I was entertained, but never deeply moved.”
The opera lacked big moments of sufficient impact, places where the main characters express their emotions so eloquently that the language becomes instantly memorable, as is the case with countless arias from the “standard” operatic repertoire (as well as with Shakespeare’s soliloquies). Such moments are a crucial aspect of why we go to live performances of operas. We look forward to hearing how great performers will interpret such over-the-top passages. I would have been glad to have this opera run a few minutes longer in order to have heard a character or two engage in some shamelessly eloquent soul-searching. That’s part of the magic we hope to hear.
[Photo of Santa Fe Opera house by Robert Godwin. Performance photographs by Ken Howard.]
Posted by Randall Shinn on August 02, 2009 in
Two of the most glamorous roles in opera portray courtesans. One is the title character in Thaïs by Jules Massenet, and the other is Violetta in La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi. This photograph of Renée Fleming as Thaïs was widely used by the Metropolitan Opera to generate ticket sales for their 2008 production of the opera.
The August 2009 issue of Opera News has an interesting article by Colleen Hill on costumes that have been designed for sopranos portraying Violetta. In article eight gowns are pictured and discussed. As one of the most glamorous sopranos, Renée Fleming is pictured twice, each time wearing a gown that was designed for her. In 2008 the New York Times had an article which showed her wearing a series of gowns commissioned for her for that season. The designers were Karl Lagerfeld, John Galliano, and Christian Lacroix.
Ms. Fleming is an extraordinary beauty and can be captivating when wearing such gowns. After seeing a movie theater broadcast of her performing in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, Garrison Keillor (of Prairie Home Companion fame) wrote the following in Salon: “Miss Fleming’s bare left shoulder is more erotic than Madonna naked and when she puts her hand to her bodice, she makes my nostrils twitch.” As can be heard in the video below, Ms. Fleming’s lyric soprano voice, a rare and assiduously cultivated gift, is just as creamy and silky-smooth in sound as that curvaceous left shoulder is in shape. No wonder Keillor was enraptured. (In the video she portrays Violetta, wearing one of the gowns designed by Christian Lacroix.)
Philip Gardner blogs about dance and opera at Oberon's Grove, a site he describes as the online extension of a diary he's kept since he was a child enamored with opera. To kick off Dance Week at DG, we asked him to share some thoughts about ballet and glamour.
DG: When did you first get interested in dance?
PG: As a child I liked dancing around the house and I always enjoyed social dancing but becoming interested in dance as an art form came about when I was in my 20s when - quite by chance - I spent a summer working for a small ballet school on Cape Cod. It was after that that I began attending performances, and it soon became a passion.
DG: Have you had training in dance yourself?
PG: At the above-mentioned school on the Cape I took class and danced in performances, and I took class for 3 years altogether. Of course I was in my mid-20s, way too late to consider doing it as a profession. It seems I had a natural affinity for it and if I had been aware of dance as a viable career choice when I was very young my life might have turned out very differently. But I grew up in a tiny town with no possible exposure to anything like dance classes. Now when I watch dancers in class, rehearsing or performing I am keenly aware that it's probably what I should have been doing all these years.
DG: How did you get started blogging about dance?
PG: Since I was about eleven, I always kept a very detailed diary. For many years it was mainly about the opera performances I attended; when I started going to the ballet I would write about that also. Of course at first I knew nothing about what I was seeing, only that I loved watching people in motion. When I finally moved to NYC in 1998 and began going to dance performances with great frequency, I would write about them on one of the internet dance sites. Meanwhile, Kristin Sloan of the New York City Ballet had started her blog The Winger and I became very intrigued with that. When I got in trouble on the site where I was posting (for being sarcastic!) I was inspired by Kristin to start my own blog. It quickly became far more successful and popular than I ever would have guessed and it has led me to meet several fascinating people in the dance and music world.
DG: How is the glamour of ballet different from (or the same as) the glamour of modern dance? What does glamour mean in each context?
PG: This may seem odd, but I think the glamour of the ballet comes from...toe shoes! Yes, the satiny pointe shoes have their own mystique and give the ballerina an elegance that is quite unique. There are other elements too which make ballet especially glamourous: the beauty of classical port de bras, the traditional style of costuming and make-up, the theatricality of it. Modern dance is usually earthier, sexier and less calculated. Also the music of the classical ballet - Tchaikovsky, Minkus, Adam - already has its own built-in sense of glamour. Modern dance choreographers tend to be far more experimental in terms of musical choices, which can often be very exciting in its own way. In the quest for finding beauty in music and movement, I think the two worlds (ballet vs modern) compliment one another very well.
DG: Onstage, dancers tend to seem quite glamorous. How much do dancers try to maintain their personas offstage? Has that changed over time? Or is it simply a matter of personality?
PG: Offstage, I find most dancers do not cultivate a glamorous image these days. For one thing, many of them are very young and they like to dress and behave like other young people when they are not onstage: meaning ultra-casual dress-down style - which in its way can be attractive. Some of the ballerinas, as they mature and rise to the rank of principal, become more aware of projecting a sophisticated image offstage. When I look at old photos from the Diaghilev era of off-duty dancers in public settings, I feel there was more awareness of creating a persona. It seems to me that during the 60s and 70s there was a concerted effort both in opera and ballet to humanize the performers, to make the public feel that soprano x and ballerina y are just normal folks who happen to be talented in a special way. The high-profile glamour of a Callas or a Markova began to fade. On the other hand, I always feel when I encounter dancers in an offstage setting that they have their own internal element of glamour or elegance which runs deeper than just their clothing, make-up and hairstyle...their talent, passion and commitment give them their own brand of glamour.
DG: Your blog features many compellingly graceful photos of dance performances. Dance is all about movement, but the photos are stills. What makes a good dance photo?
I love still photos of dancers and I've come to know several dance photographers. Many of my favorite dance photographs come from rehearsal or class situations; I have always been intrigued by the process of creating dance and these photos can be very poignant because they show the work behind the finished product. Some of the best dance photographers are dancers themselves: Kyle Froman, Erin Baiano, Matt Murphy. In capturing dance in a still photo, timing is all. To catch the exact moment when a photo will give an illusion of movement must be extremely tricky. Paul Kolnik of New York City Ballet and Erik Tomasson of San Francisco Ballet certainly have the knack, as do several others. I think a good dance photo is one that makes you want to go see the dancer or the work that has been photographed. I spend a lot of time looking at dance photos both in books and on-line, hoping to find pictures that will enhance my blog. The photographers I have dealt with have all been extremely generous; they want their photos to be seen. And of course if you are trying to describe the look and feel of a particular dance piece, a picture is worth a thousand words.
DG: It has been said that part of ballet is creating the illusion of defying gravity, and that in contrast modern dance seems more grounded. Do you agree?
PG: In general, yes, though I seen some high-flying modern dancers and also ballets that seem heavier and more earthbound. Again I must say that it is dancing on pointe that seems the dividing line for me between ballet and modern. Watching the girls defy gravity as they hover and spin on pointe really gives ballet its special quality. It's certainly unnatural, and very intriguing.
DG: You also blog about opera. How does its appeal to you differ from that of ballet or modern dance? What's similar?
PG: I loved opera long before I discovered dance as an art form. Opera was the companion of my dark, unhappy teenage years where I found solace in the passion and beauty of the human voice. The last great heyday of opera in New York (the 1960s thru the mid 1980s) was a thrilling time for me. Going to the opera nowadays can still be exciting but the atmosphere has changed and there are surely far fewer interesting vocal personalities around. Dance I find to be on a steadier trajectory in terms of holding its appeal. For me, everything is emotional. I'm not sure I believe in intellect, really. I simply want to be moved or thrilled by people doing something I cannot do. Both opera and dance can provide this: in a way it's replaced going to church for me. It's spiritually nourishing.
DG: You've written a couple of recent posts about bad audience behavior at both ballets and operas--all sorts of things that break the spell for others. What do you think is going on? Has a substantial portion of the audience stopped seeing the performance as an immersive experience?
PG: Ah, my pet peeve...bad manners at the theatre! I should not get started on this but in brief I believe that the performing arts have simply become too accesible. Yes, I'm a snob. I do not think one can go to the opera or ballet casually, just to be entertained, as one might go to a film or a sports event. Of course the opera and ballet companies need to bring in new audiences but with that goes the need for people to learn how to behave. It's hard for me to imagine people paying money and making the effort to attend and then squandering the opportunity by talking, eating, checking the cellphone. It seems that people are too self-absorbed, too accustomed to being spoon-fed their 'culture' without making any real effort to connect with music or dance beyond the surface realities. Opera and dance can still be immersive, but the viewer must be willing to be immersed. That means being attentive and putting aside other concerns and distractions while the performance goes forward. In general I think many people have simply never been taught how to behave in such a setting; I learned how to sit still and be attentive by being taken to church for many years by my parents. What it comes down to is: common courtesy. That seems to be a forgotten concept.
Photo by Kyle Froman of New York City Ballet. Used with permission.
DG: Do you find that the audience for dance dresses more casually now than when you first started attending? Do audiences for ballet tend to dress differently than audiences for modern dance?
DG: Yes, things are far more casual now in terms of dress but I do not think that being well-dressed necessarily enhances one's enjoyment of the performance. However, it does make the event more 'special' in a way. Both ballet and modern dance audiences tend to dress for comfort mainly - gala nights aside, of course.
PG: Since you have been following dance for some time, do you sometimes find that a change of performers seems to change the content (meaning) of a dance (even when the choreography remains essentially the same)? If so, does this change of meaning surprise you? How do you react to it?
PG: I have always loved to see (dance) and hear (opera) many different intrepretations of a given work. It's exhilirating to find a dancer giving a new slant to a familiar piece and I always find it intriguing how even a change of one dancer in a cast of - say - twenty can alter the tone of a ballet. In the world of Balanchine's ballets, where I spend so much time, self-styled purists often get upset when they feel the boundaries of a given work are being pushed by a given dancer. My feeling is that only Mr. B could say if something was right or wrong, and everything I have read about him makes me feel he would always have been open to a fresh approach. (I also get the feeling he was far more adaptable about altering steps for individual dancers in a given ballet than his advocates today are...he never seemed to me to be writing in stone.) What keeps ballet alive is the ever-changing casting as the years pass by...so that Mozartiana for instance never became 'fossilized' for me in Suzanne Farrell's interpretation but rather I looked forward to dancers like Kyra Nichols, Miranda Weese and Wendy Whelan dancing it...and whoever will dance it next! It's almost like a new ballet every time. For me, that's the best tribute to Balanchine's genius: it's the music that we are seeing and the dancer is the vessel.
DG: Can you say what is it about ballet and modern dance that can bring you back to see works performed more than once? Do you have any thoughts on what makes dance so compelling to you?
If I like a ballet or dance work, I will want to see it dozens and dozens of times. Invariably it is the music that is the primary appeal of a piece. Some works - like Balanchine's Serenade or Tudor's Jardin Aux Lilas - are like a drug: you feel an urgent need to see them whenever they are on offer. I like to be moved, to weep and be transported by the music and by the beauty and poetry of the human body in motion. Dance is very sustaining and elevating for the human spirit; in a way, dance and music are my religion.
The DG Dozen
1) How do you define glamour? Elegance and self-assurance.
2) Who or what is your glamorous icon? Maria Callas
Part 1 of this series of three posts suggested that the qualities of “glamour,” “atmosphere,” and “immediacy” are important to using classical music successfully in choreography or as film music. Part 2 pointed out that the timbre (character and tone color) of the instruments and voices used in the performance of a piece of music are crucial to the way the music feels.
Another important consideration is whether the music’s nature leaves room for extramusical information. Some abstract pieces of music seem to unfold in a process of “developing,” of “becoming” a complete work in the future. Trying to following this process can absorb your attention, leaving little room for stage actions or visual images. In contrast, musical works that seem to live more in the present moment are generally preferable in the theater.
Even if not written for the theater, such music may sometimes have extramusical associations such as text or titles. I’ll illustrate this by focusing on a few musical works that have fairy-tale associations. Maurice Ravel composed masterfully both for piano and for orchestra. The final section of his Mother Goose Suite is titled “The Fairy Garden,” the title itself suggesting “atmosphere.” If you compare the beginning of the original four-hand piano version to his transcription of the same music for orchestra, it’s clear that the different colors make the atmosphere of each feel quite different.
The piano version is lovely, and solo piano music has been used effectively for both ballet and films. But comparing the opening measures, I don’t feel that the piano’s percussive nature evokes the delicacy of a fairy garden in the same way as does the soft sustained bowing of the strings.
Music written with some theatrical flare tends to make more noticeable use of orchestral color. As noted in part 1, Elizabeth Sawyer felt that Weber’s music generally has “atmosphere,” and that Brahms’ music does not. This stems in part from Weber’s concern with details of color. To cite one example, Weber specifies more string section color effects in the first three minutes of the Overture to his opera Oberon (fairies again) than you are likely to find in an entire Brahms symphony. Many of these color details are subtle, but concern with subtleties is crucial to “glamour.” Brahms didn’t write for the theater, and he seems to have had little interest in the kind of “glamorous,” “atmospheric” coloring that can make such a immediate and memorable impression in the theater.
So, given an orchestra’s tremendous range of color possibilities, using colors theatrically is one way to add glamour and atmosphere. Doing so relates to the notion of glamour as something beyond the ordinary. In essence, you can use orchestral colors to present music in a straightforward, relatively “neutral” way, or you can use them to present music in a way that is more striking, more “glamorous.”
If we personify this, we can imagine theater music as tending to wear glamorous makeup, rather than no or minimal makeup. (Or we could contrast glamorous clothing versus plain clothing.) Remarks of this kind are controversial because some composers contend that the sound of their music is always intrinsic, not something that can be considered as “coloring” or “apparel.” Stravinsky, who achieved international fame with ballet scores and whose orchestration is always striking, once praised Beethoven’s instrumentation for its “sobriety,” saying Beethoven’s orchestration is never “apparel,” and thus “never strikes one.” (Stravinsky’s remarks suggest an ambivalence about noticeable artfulness that I have written about as a general artistic issue elsewhere.)
The Dutch site GirlScene has posted images of models with and without makeup, generating controversy there and at Feminine Beauty. Regardless of what you think of the photographs, they demonstrate that each model’s underlying bone structure and facial features remain the same, whether wearing makeup or not. So too, all of our musical examples have underlying melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic structures that remain the same, regardless of the colors used to present them. Nonetheless, it is surprising how much surface coloring influences our impressions (See Virginia Postrel’s images of Donatello’s David with and without gilded hair.)
The purpose of this series of posts has been to discuss some of the qualities that make some music more “glamorous” and “atmospheric,” and thus suitable for use in the theater. Stated bluntly, in the theater “neutral” orchestration tends to fall flat. The theater is no more “the real world” than fashion photo shoots are. Both worlds deal in illusions. People come to the theater hoping to somehow be enchanted, hoping to be transported to somewhere less ordinary, and “glamorous” sounds can help create that spell.
Puccini was a master of atmospheric scoring, and his tenor aria “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot has been used in at least 15 movies, frequently at an emotional high point in the movie that consists only of action. In the opera the aria is sung at night, and the whole town has been ordered to stay awake (no one sleeps, nessun dorma) to try to discover the name of the Prince who has solved the Princess’s riddle. In addition to highly atmospheric scoring in the strings and the rest of the orchestra, we also hear the ethereal effect of an offstage chorus (usually absent from concert performances). In addition, Puccini writes for the tenor voice with consummate skill, including knowing which vowel sounds work best for high notes. (Don't get confused by the subtitles: the subtitles in this video are in Spanish, but he’s singing in Italian.)
When this aria is used in films, the theatrical device is often to have some character in the film be listening to the aria. This device is used in The Sum of All Fears. In a scene in which the American president and Soviet chairman sign a new peace accord, various conspirators who tried to bring about nuclear war are assassinated. The first of these conspirators is listening to the aria. The applause at the end of the aria seems to serve dual purposes.
In all cases where I have heard this aria used in films, the emotional intensity of the music helps make the film scene seem to have great emotional significance. Remarkably, in The Witches of Eastwick the aria occurs during a joyous scene, and in The Killing Fields during an introspective scene. Thus it is clearly the aria’s level of emotional intensity that interests film makers (more than a specific emotional quality). Intensity, plus the music’s ability to cast a unforgettable spell.
Both men and women seem to recognize that a valuable fashion accessory can be the company of an attractive, well-attired member of the opposite sex. And if one item of arm candy helps proclaim one’s attractiveness, what about the effect of a bevy of them?
Musical theater has long understood and exploited this notion. In the 1957 film Les Girls Gene Kelly works with a troupe of 3 beautiful dancers. In the 1942 film Yankee Doodle Dandy James Cagney sings for a bevy of 16 belles wearing matching costumes. (See image number 22.) And in the same film Fay Templeton is admired by 8 nattily attired men. (See image number 37.)
Costuming one's bevy of admirers in matching outfits helps mark them as your entourage. In a 2005 Salzburg production of Verdi’s La Traviata, Anna Netrebko, in a red dress, is surrounded by a large chorus, all of whom wear black suits. If you look closely you can see that many of those wearing suits are women, which only adds to the implication that she is attractive to all.
This image from Broadway Melody of 1938 suggests even greater sexual ambiguity. Thirty-two men in black top hat and tails kneel in admiration of Eleanor Powell, who is dressed in masculine, gray-blue top hat and tails. She stands in a feet-planted, legs-apart stance that body language experts call a crotch display. It is common stance for tough guys, but is seldom used by women (except superheroes). Of the 32 women whose eyes admire her, half already seem to have swooned, their dresses forming a lovely pattern. (See a superb large scan of this image here.)
Such over-the-top images almost parody themselves. By the time music videos came around, the entourage effect was ripe for post-modern reworking. In Robert Palmer’s Addicted to Love video his band consists of five women who seem made up to resemble the stylized prints of Patrick Nagel. Clad in provocative versions of the simple black dress, these women wear neutral expressions. This leaves the tie-clad Palmer as the only person free to show facial emotion, his sexual attractiveness firmly established by his glamorous band.
Shania Twain parodied these images with herMan! I Feel Like a Woman! video. Her male band is strangely clad. Wearing what appears to be latex from the waist down, their upper bodies are showcased in thin stretch fabric. Better matched facially even than the women in Palmer’s video, they all wear swim goggles atop their forehead, perhaps a reference to a particular image of Nagel’s. The men seem to be stoic soldiers of glamour who know and accept their role as accessories. For brief periods they even disappear from the video. (And be sure to note Twain's stance.)
Twain begins the video wearing a top hat and long black dress that suggests a tuxedo. By the video’s end she has stripped down to long black gloves, thigh-high boots, and a black corset. This costume has enough dominatrix overtones to reinforce her commanding role in this group, and, like Palmer, she is the only one allowed to show facial emotion.
As a stage device the entourage effect can seem part of an entertaining fantasy. But perpetuated over time in real life (à la Hugh Hefner surrounded by living Barbie Dolls), it can devolve into a caricature that becomes unflattering to everyone involved.
The gods of singing are capricious. Some of us are given passable voices, others pathetic voices. Some are given good voices, and a few are given extraordinary voices. Some of these few have the power to enchant.
Most of the singing we hear today uses electronic amplification. Some singers have learned to take advantage of this, and sometimes use their voices in ways that seem remarkably intimate.
Here’s a video of Alison Krauss using her beautiful voice in this way while performing on a TV show. At times she seems to sing so softly we almost feel we are overhearing her sing to herself. The male members of the group sometimes join her by singing softly into their microphones, gently supporting her. Everything about the group’s performance, including the clothing, suggests casualness, as if they look and sound much the same as they would if we happened to find them singing in someone’s home. (Nonetheless, I find Krauss’ lovely voice and quiet beauty enchanting.)
In contrast to this feeling of intimacy, operas are performed in large theaters, and the singers perform without amplification. Voices large enough to full such spaces are rare, typically need years of training, and can be damaged by singing roles unsuited to their voice and experience. Such rigorously trained voices help opera singers portray larger-than-life characters, and the quality of the voice is integral to those characterizations. Words such as powerful, vibrant, agile, and flexible are sometimes used to describe them--terms we associate with health and vigor. In a confined rehearsal space I once heard two baritones rehearse powerful, macho-tinged arias. A soprano then joked she needed to leave the room because there was too much testosterone in the air.
Given the gods’ capricious nature, large, beautiful voices doesn’t always in up in a bodies as appealing to the eye as the voices are to the ear. Opera fans have often overlooked this issue, but in our media-minded age, appearance has become more of a factor.
Listen to gorgeous, sumptuously voiced Anna Nebretko sing an aria from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi for a TV audience. In this aria the singer tells her father that if he doesn’t help her marry the man she loves, she will jump off the Ponte Vecchio into the Arno River. In singing it she sounds as if she is pleading her case to the whole world—she is singing as she would (without amplification) to move a patron sitting in the last row of a theater.
Since this performance was not in a theater, a microphone was placed on the floor in front of her, and the reverberation was set to emulate the sound of a large hall. The microphone was placed far enough away to allow her to fully use her powerful voice. By contrast, with Alison Krauss the microphone almost touches her lips, allowing her to use a more intimate tone to full effect.
Unlike Krauss, nothing about Nebretko’s performance appears casual. The gown, the makeup, the hair, and the voice all seem larger than life. (Such gowns can cost thousands of dollars, and I find it hard to imagine a more glamorous effect.) The images that we take away from these performances are remarkably different, as they were intended to be. Whatever she is like offstage, in her performance Krauss seems like someone who might, if you met her, talk with you in a relaxed way. In contrast, Nebretko seems like someone who might, if you were lucky, grant you an audience. Krauss seems down-to-earth and approachable; Nebretko seems otherworldly and unreachable.
Their voices and performance personas are each perfectly tuned to resonate in their chosen performance environments. And while each are alluring within their domains, each would find her ability to enchant vastly diminished if forced to trade realms. Lucky us, to have both.
Creating a memorable performance persona is not without danger. A person's public persona and private character are not necessarily the same, and for some people performance images can become traps. In interviews Joan Baez has discussed falling prey to her own mythology when she was young. Although her interest in folk singing and politics remained steadfast, as she grew older she became interested in high-quality clothing. As the photos at her website reveal, she matured into an elegant woman with a sophisticated fashion sense. In 2008 New Zealand fashion designer Annah Stretton named a dress and jacket for her. At the 2007 Grammys, when asked about young performers, Baez revealed that now she listens to opera. She has refused to let her early image as a performer define or limit her later appearance or cultural interests.
Some opera singers, expected to be glamorous, may in private prefer comfortable casual clothes and be wonderfully down-to-earth. When they need to present a glamorous image, they costume accordingly. There is exceptional danger in falling prey to the mythology that can surround a diva. Seeing oneself constantly in this mythic light can lead to insufferable behavior. At the peak of her fame, silvery-voiced Kathleen Battle became so unapproachable that she had trouble dealing with both her colleagues and the people providing services for her. Her behavior ultimately became so intolerable that in 1994 she was famously fired by the Metropolitan Opera and has not worked in opera since. Here she is performing the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria with guitarist Christopher Parkening.
An enchantress had become entranced by her image as a performer. As her behavior became increasing governed by delusions of grandeur, she forgot that glamour is always partly an illusion. Her performing colleagues did not forget. When told that she had been fired, they applauded. Given how disruptive her behavior had become, one can hardly blame them. Her voice and beauty were otherworldly, but the world of opera, like all live theater, is here-and-now, and thus requires performers who can come down to earth.
(For examples of Netrebko at work in the theater, look at these excerpts (1 and 2) from a Salzburg Festival production of Verdi’s La Traviata, as broadcast on German television. With such an over-sized stage, intense vocal presence becomes a necessity.)
Posted by Randall Shinn on March 28, 2009 in