Sunday, September 29, 2013

How Anna Nicole Smith Could Save Opera in the 21st Century

Hey world! Long time no see hun? Sorry about that! You guys must think I haven’t watched anything new over the past month and that’s why I haven’t posted but that’s actually not true. I did see a production of Don Giovanni about two weeks ago here in São Paulo that I hated in general. I mean, there were some positive points, the guy playing Don Giovanni, the gorgeous costumes and sets (but that’s not really thanks to the theatre itself since I was told everything came from another production of Don in Vienna). So I thought it’d be best if I didn’t write a post about it because Don Giovanni is probably my favorite Mozart opera, I know most of it by heart and if I told you guys what happened that day in the theatre, things would get ugly. I have also gone to Sumi Jo’s concert last week in Sala São Paulo and might one day write about it but not now. It was fun and I was happy I got to see some opera friends I hadn’t seen in a while but it was nothing compared to Vesselina’s or Renée’s concert.

But I’m here actually to publish the work of one of my first opera twitter friends, the notorious Opera Teen (aka Harry). Harry is one talented guy who has an immense knowledge of this amazing art form. Here he writes his views and previsions about the opera “Anna Nicole” that is based on the life of Anna Nicole Smith and had its premiere in the NYOC just a couple of weeks ago.

Sarah Joy Miller as Anna Nicole in the NYCO

"Opera is no stranger to the idea of a sex symbol. There’s Violetta, the most celebrated courtesan of Paris, Manon Lescaut, the alluring and money loving subject of many operas, and Dalila, the Biblical femme-fatale. While all those women are part of stories that have been told for over a hundred years, even today the sex symbol still proves to be a provocative subject for the operatic stage. On September 17th, Mark Anthony Turnage’s opera, Anna Nicole, undoubtedly one of the most important operas of the 21st century, arrives at Brooklyn Academy of Music in a co-presentation with New York City Opera for its American premiere. The opera is based on the life of Anna Nicole Smith, the Playmodel cum millionaire-octogenarian’s wife who ultimately succumbed to the pressures of fame. It premiered in London in 2011 to mostly positive reviews. Eva-Maria Westbroek played the fallen starlet in a production by Richard Jones, who will be directing this NYCO production. The libretto, with enough cursing to make any rap artist blush, is by Richard Thomas. Since then, it has only been presented at Oper Dortmund, with changes since the premiere. Of the changes, Emily Newton, the Texan soprano who sang the title role at Dortmund, said “In several places in the score, Turnage expanded things musically for the version that was performed in Dortmund… However, there was an addition that I feel was very positive. The final aria (arietta?) for Anna Nicole was expanded at the climax in a way that was musically satisfying and also vocally gratifying for the singer… The additional phrases of "I wanted more!" at the climax of the aria in the Dortmund version made me feel like I had more time and vocal material to express one of the core ideas of the character.”

As an opera, Anna Nicole definitely has earned its share of criticisms. A lot of complaints stemmed from the fact that two British composers chose an American, formerly middleclass celebrity who started as a stripper. Many people felt that the topic was too foreign for two people so removed from that lifestyle to pull off respectably, and that’s a valid concern. The opera is full of cynicism with scenes that depict the hardships of WalMart employees, raucous parties, and damaging drug addictions. That said, I personally found the piece (through the video issued by the ROH) an extremely honest look at fame and the prejudices that exist in our society.  The libretto was the most poorly received part of the opera. Of the changes made to the libretto, Newton added “…There were small subtle changes in the libretto, which I feel like enhanced an already brilliant libretto and made it more idiomatic. No changes were really drastic in my opinion, but the adjustments were all excellent fine-tuning.”

While at first glance the opera may seem like a musical biography, but on closer listening and examination, that proves not to be the case. While the opera is about a celebrity, it’s more of a parable warning against the dangers of fame. Anna Nicole Smith is an archetype for the fallen celebrity. In theory, the message of this opera could be delivered through focusing on any number of modern celebrities who haven’t been doing well under Hollywood’s microscope. I wouldn’t be surprised if in a few years, we had a Lindsay Lohan opera. Now, who would want to see an opera about Lindsay Lohan? I’m willing to guess a lot of people. I can make a guarantee that an opera about a celebrity would sell tickets in the US. Lately many companies see the answer to bringing new audiences into opera houses is through aggressive marketing campaigns. While it’s great to see a Met advertisement on the side of a bus, is it really the thing that will ultimately get them to the opera? They also use tactics like bringing in new directors, and, of course, the hotly debated “sex sells” method of advertising. Maybe, the answer to courting new audiences is striking closer to home with the material on which new opera is based, as Anna Nicole had a sold out run at the ROH in 2011. No matter how many performances of Traviata or Boheme there are, if new operas are not being written and produced, then opera really should be called dead.

That’s why Anna Nicole’s arrival in New York, even at the cash strapped New York City Opera, is so exciting and important to the state of new classical music and opera in the United States. It demonstrates that there really is still a desire to hear newer works. The dedication to premiering new works and reviving recent compositions was one of the defining hallmarks and achievements of New York City Opera for a long time. New York City Opera was the company who originally presented pieces like: “The Tender Land” by Copland, “The Crucible” by Ward, and “Candide” by Bernstein. If New York City Opera, once the champion of new opera, isn’t presenting any more new works, than who is? There are smaller organizations like Gotham Chamber Opera, but nothing on as large and influential a sale as NYCO. For new opera in New York City to survive, NYCO needs to survive.

With all that’s been circulating on social media about New York City Opera and how its mismanagement is sending it spiraling towards the ground, it needs to be clarified that opera could not have survived into this century without the help of companies like New York City Opera. The Met wasn’t doing many new works and there were only a handful of very small opera companies in the city that were on budgets too small to warrant experimentation with new operas. In past seasons at NYCO, newer pieces, like Rufus Wainright’s Prima Donna, have sold well. Maybe, just maybe, the answer to bringing new audiences into opera houses is new operas that strike closer to home. To get to the public, you have to pique their interests. It’s not dumbing opera down, or changing the language. It’s opera about things people want to hear. And that’s what people will come back for."

I think it’s really important to make space to talk about new operas and risqué works such as these. Because, as I’ve told Harry himself a couple of days ago, every time I hear somebody criticize the fact that someone like Anna Nicole is the main subject of an opera I can’t help but think back about 200 years ago when people only wrote operas about old legends, kings and heroes and one little man with a funny laugh and extraordinary compositional gifts dared to write opera about the everyday people of his time. How he was trashed and criticized back then but nevertheless his work was a success and today Le Nozze di Figaro is one of the most performed works in the repertoire. Think about that ;)

I’m gonna leave you guys there but I’ll be back later this week because on Wednesday evening I fly to New York City! YES! And I promise to make a post for each day, I’m arriving there on Thursday, 6 in the morning. See you guys then! Cheers!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Last Night of the Proms - Rule Joycetannia!

The BBC Last Night of the Proms was last Saturday and I myself was dying to see it so I didn’t even go back home to Santos I just stayed here in São Paulo electrically waiting for it to begin. I was kind of disappointed because I wasn’t able to see it, as I tried to download the things the BBC 2 website told me to I probably got a hell lot of virus in my PC. Then I learned that nobody outside Europe or the UK was able to see it as well. That’s strike number 2 for BBC (strike number one was that ridiculous Hard Talk with Thomas Hampson). But I did have a lovely day!

A few hours before the show began BBC 3 was on with a program in which Joyce was the dj and she’d choose all her favorite songs to play. It was so lovely, many things I didn’t know but I think that the one I liked the most was the Vivaldi concert for a violin played by one of her friends, just remarkable! The program was two hours long but I myself didn’t even feel it, I used up this time to FINALLY end translating my arias in German.

There was an absolute angel who posted the whole event on YouTube, here’s the link to the playlist.

Well, 7:30pm in the UK, 3:30pm here in Brazil and it was time for the BBC Last Night of the Proms. I was so very excited and it is much more fun when you have a whole twiterspere of people watching/listening to the same thing and tweeting about it. This was an extra special night and not just because one of my favorite singers was in the spot light. It was actually because this was the first ever Last Night of the Proms conducted by a woman, the amazing Marin Alsop. I’m not going to talk about the events in their right order because quite frankly I don’t remember.

It featured music that I adored and music I barely knew so it was quite a treat. One thing I was absolutely and thoroughly entertained with was Nigel Kennedy’s performance. He’s a violinist and he performed the Csardas which is a ridiculously fast Hungarian dance. But oh man he did so much more than that. He managed to insert little bits and pieces of all sorts of classical tunes into the dances while playing so fast I couldn’t help but start jumping on my seat. Even Marin wasn’t able to keep a straight face as he goofed around while playing the violin like no other. I had the feeling he was going to toss the violin when it ended because it’d catch on fire or something, the man was on fire and it is absolutely delicious to watch! One more thing that I thought was so cool was that he came on to the stage wearing a football team shirt and drinking a cup of tea, he had just performed in Hyde Park. How awesome is a person like that?

Then he also played Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. This one was serious and absolutely gorgeous. But for this one he was hardly formal, he was wearing a leather jacket and sporting clothes that resembled a rock star. AWESOME!

We also had a little tribute to Verdi’s 200th birthday the amazing Hebrew slave chorus from Nabucco, Vá Pensiero. If you have already sung this you know how it feels. It’s bigger than you and so incredibly magical. Marin Alsop conducted the overture of Bernstein’s Candide to utter perfection, I loved it how this evening embraced music of all times. I don’t know Candide all that well but when I heard the coloratura of Glitter and be Gay being played by the flutes in the Overture I couldn’t help but sing along!

Joyce talk? Please? Oh you think I forgot about my favorite diva? Well in her first appearance she was sporting a gorgeous vine colored dress and that warm beautiful smile of hers. For her first selection she sang a “Mashup” (as the lady in the radio said) of opera favorites. She started with Massenet’s “Je suis gris” from the opera Cherubin, I love this song, it’s in her Diva Divo cd and it’s absolutely gorgeous. It doesn’t even give you time to think about it, before you know it beautiful Joyce sound is ringing through the hall. Then changing completely the time and feel of things she rocked Handel’s “Ombra Mai Fu” from the opera Xerxes. This is one of those arias that you go, “AWW, I love that, it’s so gorgeous!”, although if you think about it it’s totally creepy because Joyce is playing not even a man, but Xerxes, that weird 3 meter tall king that wanted to destroy everything in the 300 movie. And how he’s in love with a tree because the tree is taller than him while nothing else is, very weird indeed. But, quiet refined and true, Joyce always manages to get to that soft spot in my heart.

Then comes the coloratura fireworks we’ve been waiting so long to listen to. She closed her selection with “Tanti Affetti/Frai padre” from Rossini’s La Donna Del Lago which I found was quite the right choice since she spent her last 3, 4 months singing this role first in London and the in Santa Fe. It was like an explosion of little diamonds as Joyce’s voice went up and down faster and faster. And you could clearly notice that she was very emotional, especially when she said “Tanta felicita” she was literally bursting with happiness and it was such a wonderful thing to watch.

What I found most curious about this evening was that the audience was on fire! I mean, this is not by any means the usual classical music concert audience reaction. It, to me, almost resembled a football game in some moments with screaming, cheering, and a lot of noise! I loved it, but when the music began there was absolute silence, it’s that sense of respect that is totally lacking in my country but I’m not even gonna go there.

Nearing the end of the concert Marin Alsop made a wonderful speech. She first thanked everybody involved, the soloists, the orchestra, the chorus and the audience who was superb. But I really loved it when she said she was incredibly honored to be the first woman to conduct this ceremony but that was also quite shocked that we were in 2013 and there could be “firsts” for women. And I couldn’t agree more, I’m happy that that’s happened and a battle has been won against the ridiculous prejudice there is regarding women who conduct. In my college for instance the best conducting student in the whole school is a girl (who happens to be my friend), my voice teacher is also a conductor and has been conducting the biggest and most important musicals in São Paulo for years. Marin Alsop herself is the head conductor of our most important Orchestra, OSESP.

Moving on on the speech she also thanked her parents who always supported her in her career decisions and even made a little remark about how people were saying just last week that “Girls can’t do that.”. I thought it was wonderful for her to say that, God knows how many people are in need of support and understanding in these “modern” times.

Then she moved on to talking about the power of music and of course my eyes were already filling up with tears. It’s odd how what she said resembles something one of my coolest teachers (her name is Aida, you can’t get any cooler than that right?) always says. The arts is what makes us human beings, without it we are nothing. And music and art cannot be pushed to the margins they have to be front and center. It’s really very moving. My teacher always tells us that we have the power to change people’s lives by touching them in the most extraordinary ways. If we are true to ourselves and to our art form we can accomplish so much not just for ourselves but to anybody who cares to listen.

Back to Joyce talk, she comes back to rip our hearts out with her amazing performance of Over the Rainbow. You know I’ve never been a big fan of The Wizard of Oz or Judy Garland or this song, BUT Joyce made me fall in love with it. As I listened to it live last Saturday tears started falling no stop and before I knew it I was sobbing, yes, SOBBING, making noise. And then I actually watched the video and of course there was much more sobbing happening. I loved it how absolutely emotional she looked when she said “Dreams, really do come true”. And every time I watch the video or hear the song sung by Joyce I cry. So I made a little test with my sis and mom to see if I wasn’t going insane. They both watched the video and cried, so I’m not that weird.

Joyce closed her participation singing the anticipated “Rule Britannia”. Wearing a rather odd looking overdress she rocked the song and put some lovely Joyce coloratura in there. It’s so cool to see everybody singing along to the chorus and getting to their feet with their flags proud and strong. It’s just one of those great moments that you wish you could be there.

I know I didn’t talk about everything that happened but I only talked about my favorites, but you guys can check out the whole performance on YouTube. Now I’m going to have my microwave lunch and head off to college to one more day of incessant studying! Peace everybody!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The True Face of Music In Brazil

Hey world! So yesterday the August issue of Opera21 came out and there it was, a two page article about musical education in Brazil written by moi! The whole issue is so good, they have many pieces about musical education from people from all over the world plus an interview with Renée Fleming! To access the whole magazine just click here! I just wanted to pop here and publish my article in the blog, I hope you guys like it! 

"As a person who came to fall in love with opera only in my twenties, looking back now, I can see how things could have been different if I had had more appreciation for the art form when I was in school. But also looking back, I see that the possibility of me getting hooked on what today is my sole purpose of living was very small. You see I live in Brazil and I would like to show you how schools manage the arts around here.

Brazil is, some might say, a country on the rise. It’s the 6th biggest economy in the world, and we are hosting the World Cup next year and the Olympic Games in a couple more. However, Brazil could easily be described as an underfed child who happens to be wearing pretty clothes and is told to behave when they have visits. If you look from afar it all seems alright but if you get to know her, you will be quite surprised. It’s a country led by people who are ready to spend billions of dollars building football stadiums but will not raise a finger when it comes to our educational system.

It's this uncaring government that manages our public schools that sometimes produces "graduate students" who don't even know how to write. The teachers in these schools are quite competent, but they're told to approve everyone and if they don’t, they are bullied out of their jobs, by the students. It suffices to say that there’s very little room for Arts Education in these schools. Normally, the pupils who attend public schools in Brazil come from Low/Medium Low class families who can’t afford sometimes to pay the rent, so don’t have the means to invest in their children’s education.

What does create a bridge between these pupils and music is projects created by Non Governmental Institutions that teach children about the Arts. In some cases, music teachers go to the public schools themselves, gather up the kids who are interested in learning more about music, and end up doing quite remarkable things. A wonderful example is Cartola’s Violin Orchestra (Orquestra de Violinos Cartola), which is based on one of Rio de Janeiro’s biggest favelas(slums), the Mangueira favela. Nowadays, that program has over 80 kids enrolled and a big waiting list. One of their many objectives is to bring to the concert hall’s stage and audience all kinds of Brazilians since the music of many of the great composers were written for the great public, and not just for the aristocracy.

Another school that teaches classical music in slums is the Rocinha School of Music (Escola de Música da Rocinha), which was founded back in 1994 by the German musician Hans Ulrich Koch. Rocinha is one of the most dangerous places in Rio de Janeiro, but with projects like these, kids are taken out of the streets and find a purpose. There, kids take musical theory lessons, various kinds of instrument lessons, and choir singing, and it's all for free. Plus, the pupils can also borrow the instruments they are learning and take them home to practice. Unfortunately, these schools are not backed up by the government. Rocinha’s School of Music, for instance, is financed by European donors.

In private schools, the scene changes a bit. More than half of the children in Brazil attend different kinds of private schools. We have from high end super expensive to middle class affordable private schools in Brazil. Since there are so many different kinds of schools in Brazil, it is difficult for colleges to rely only on school transcripts in order to approve a pupil or not. Each college holds a big test every year for all who are interested in going there to take it. These tests are the main focus of most schools nowadays, so quite literally, schools are teaching what is likely to be asked in these tests and not really educating, especially in high school.

Then again there is not much room for Arts education in private schools as well. Normally, what happens is that children will have some sort of regular music class between the ages of 7 to 10 in school. The quality of these lessons does change from school to school, and some have quite nice music lessons that teach a bit of music theory and history. However, others really disappoint. Some schools have music lessons, choir lessons and flute lessons as extracurricular activities. Unfortunately, the quality of these lessons again varies from school to school, and in some schools, the lessons given are of terrible quality or don’t happen at all.

In order to learn about music or how to play an instrument, parents normally enroll their children in Conservatories/Music Schools/Private Lessons, which are customarily far from cheap.

The Conservatories sometimes have high end teachers who give the child a wonderful notion of music in general and form excellent instrument players. Very young children get basic music classes for a few years, and are then directed to an instrument of their liking. Normally, these schools teach only classical music, but there are some schools that are opening their doors little by little to a more modern repertoire. The modern repertoire comes as an option the pupil can have once he’s got the basic notions of his instrument. A full course in a conservatory can last up to 10 years and can sometimes even allow the student to skip needing a minor degree in music in order to do a Graduate course in college.

One of the best music schools in Brazil is the Escola Municipal de Música in São Paulo. There, pupils get the chance to be privately taught by musicians who are playing in the major orchestras in São Paulo. For instance, one of their faculty members on the classical singeing staff is one of the most in-demand sopranos in Brazil. Apart from the private instrument lessons, the students also get Harmony lessons, Counterpoint lessons, Ear Training lessons, and History Lessons, all for free. The courses can last from 2 to 12 years, depending on the instrument. The school’s capacity is 800 students, and they accept 200 new students every year.

Although projects like these are wonderful, these numbers don’t suffice the enormous need that the 11 million citizens of the city of São Paulo have, alone. Moreover, the real issue is that most people are not exposed to classical music nearly enough and sometimes, not at all. Because of that, ignorance and prejudice grow along with an absolute lack of interest.

Fortunately, there are many who are passionate about classical music here in Brazil, and they do their best to introduce it to as many as they can. Brazilians are stubborn and persistent when they find their purpose, and as we say around here, “Brazilians never give up”. Being both a Brazilian and an opera singer, I must confess I take pride when I look around and see no dry eyes by the end of La Traviata."

Well, that's it! Hope you guys like it, please let me know! Cheers!