Saturday, December 18, 2010

Lists & Notebooks

I am jotting down lists for a talk next month to Roanoke's Shakespeare book club on Faust: "Myth and Music."

'Tis the season for lists. Shopping lists, gift lists, wish lists and more. Umberto Eco's fascinatingly quirky monograph, The Infinity of Lists is open on the kitchen table to an excerpt from the Walpurgisnacht scene from Goethe's Faust (I am not planning on replicating Mephistopheles's bewitched recipe, for the record).

The Walpurgisnacht scene is one entry in my notebook of archetypal "journeys to the abyss." Christ's descent into hell another. Also Ulysses's and Orpheus's journeys to the underworld. And Dante's trip with Virgil in the Divine Comedy. One might add a trip to any shopping mall in the US the weekend before Christmas. And so on.

My obsession with mythology can now add James Hollis's Tracking the Gods: The Place of Myth in Modern Life to this year's top-ten list of favorite books.

He quotes Paul Tillich's observation that "the greatest sin of modernism was not evil…but rather the barren triviality that preoccupies us" (Inner City Books, 1995). Which recalls another apt quote from another list.

This one from the pragmatic critic and philosopher, John Dewey. "The enemies of the esthetic are neither the practical nor the intellectual. They are the humdrum...submission to convention" (Art as Experience, 1934. Perigree edition 2005).

I can see the mountains from my apartment in Roanoke, the sea from our bay-side home in Norfolk. Nature is the origin of the aesthetic and an antidote to humdrum convention. Selah.

My list of favorite Italian films would start with several by Michelangelo Antonioni. That list would be ordered by preference for his muse, the mysterious and unpredictable Monica Vitti. Il Deserto Rosso (Red Desert) is at the top of the list. Among other concerns, it centers on the balance between technology and nature. The poetry of modernity. I'd never seen nuclear reactors as man-made volcanos but that is exactly what they resemble in the opening sequence of this visually stunning film (Antonioni's first in color).

It can be viewed as a series of modern art tableaus. Urban landscapes. Toxic beauty (the yellow smoke and sulfuric wetlands embody such oxymoronic tension). Though I don't think the film would make a great opera, it provokes thought on the tense relationship between tradition and progress. Which brings to mind the shifting landscape of classical music in the US, from concert programming to opera production.

But I digress. That tangent was inspired by a quote from Signorina Vitti as she looks dreamily out on the water (I listed it in my notebook, just above John Dewey's).

"It's never still...never, never...I can't look at the sea for long or I lose interest in what's happening on land."

One of the most interesting perspectives on what's happening on land is from an airplane window. I love sitting by the window on a partly cloudy day and glimpsing the curvilinear form of the city-scape as it comes into view upon descent. To trace the arc of a bending road that mirrors a river's curves is to marvel at the beauty of technology and the marriage of the aesthetic and pragmatic. One could expand the list of metaphors thus inspired, from the winding paths of life to the body's curves to "Spoon River" and beyond...

I don't know if that counts as an example of Dewey's aim to "restore continuity" between the experience of everyday life and the aesthetic. But living in a place where that continuity is conscious helps. The list of cities with an admirable commitment to public art might start with Chicago. Within a few blocks of one another are sprawling and fanciful sculptures by Calder, Miro and Picasso, with Chagall's panoramic mural of the Four Seasons in between.

The four seasons reminds one of the quaternity of elements, the stages of humankind, the four corners of the square and the squaring of the circle. The mythopoeic fourfold and the unity forged through diversity.

(There I go again, poeticizing lists, listing metaphors, randomly mythologizing).

One answer to the question "what does one do on one's first saturday off since the summer?" is to make such lists. To "discern the movement of soul" (Hollis) and follow Dr Jung's advice to relate to the infinite in the quest for the "authentic life" of meaning.

'Tis the season to give thanks and celebrate the mysterious beauty of life. To borrow a wonderful metaphor from my colleague, Jim Gates, let us give presence more than presents. Let us count the ways life is rich with meaning. The list is not important. It is the act itself.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

In Flanders Fields with Don Carlo

One of the world's most beloved war-time poems is John McCrae's In Flanders Fields. Its haunting, lyrical voice comes directly from the front of the so-called "Great War" (the British term for what we know as World War One).

In flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

I believe one of the reasons we love tragic art (even if we'd be embarrassed to admit it) is because it touches our emotions so directly we are affected--we are moved--before the experience registers as a powerful affect (thus giving us the opportunity to disavow such affected responses. "Plausible deniability," right?)

I would never deny my deep affection and abiding love for Verdi's Don Carlo. Its historical epoch (the 16th c. reign of Spain's King Philip II) is centuries removed from WWI and even further from us. But one of the functions of pieces like In Flanders Fields is that it not only speaks for its own time, but like all great tragedy, it speaks for all time.

I adopt such an idealist tone, of course, to betray my sympathies with the title character and his freedom-fighter friend, Rodrigo, the Marquis of Posa. Like all great stories, Don Carlo is full of human characters in dynamic relationships--with one another, with the state/church/society, and also with destiny (fate) and history.

Don Carlo is arguably more Shakespearean than Verdi's settings of the Bard. Based on a play by Friedrich "Ode to Joy" Schiller, Don Carlo deals with the complex relationships of six leading characters set against the historical backdrop of the Spanish Inquisition. This produces great tension across the spectrum of relationships, resulting in engaging drama. The Inquisition also conveniently provides the composer with an "excuse" for an elaborate, ballet-like demonstration of operatic "pomp and circumstance" in the auto-da-fe scene (a celebration crowned with the burning of heretics).

So Don Carlo has grand operatic spectacle on an epic scale with characters Shakespearean in dimension. The score is a paradigm of compositional virtue where motivic unity is concerned. That's a fancy way of saying it's "closely argued." Another way of saying it's "tight." One doesn't have to recognize "motivic unity" as such to hear or "get" Don Carlo. It is a cult favorite of opera (and Verdi) lovers because of its great cast of characters and the sheer beauty of their music. It casts its own special shadow full of deep-hued tones. It is beloved for the unusual aura of the deep voices in its cast (1 baritone & 3 basses).

The aforementioned Rodrigo is one of the great Verdi baritone roles (which makes it one of the great baritone roles)! His death scene near the opera's close is one of the most beautifully crafted and moving moments of any male singer in opera. King Philip should be an easy-to-loathe villain--a tyrant who selfishly steals his son's fiancee (via political deal) and rules by oppressive force. He has one of the greatest monologues in opera when he sings of the unrequited love of his wife.

The second stanza of In Flanders Fields identifies the chorus singing voice to the poem:

We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Don Carlo is full of voices in dialogue and contains some of Verdi's greatest ensemble pieces. The second act alone contains not one but three major duets: the popular "friendship" duet between Don Carlo (T) and Rodrigo (B); a classic "lost love" duet between Carlo and Elisabetta, the prima donna. The act ends with one of the great baritone & bass duets in the repertoire. "Restate" (Stay) is also a chillingly relevant piece of theater in the form of a political conversation.

The new Met production is right on by allowing these voices to resonate. The next "Live in HD broadcast" is a co-production with London's Royal Opera House (Covent Garden). The eminent british director Nicholas Hytner tells the story in bold strokes underscored by great fields of primary color: red, black, and white.

In Great Britain, Armistice Day (what we celebrate as Veterans Day) is marked with near ubiquitous red poppy lapel pins. The scene from Act II mentioned above features poppies strewn about the stage; an entire field of poppies is the "background" to both the "lost love" duet & the great political duet that follows. The symbolism of those bright red poppies would not only have registered palpably with the London audience; it would do what symbolism is supposed to do: it would provoke (inspire) thought & reflection.

And Don Carlo has much to inspire & provoke. In addition to the spectral timbre of its sound world, its epic length contributes to its powerful cumulative effect. All grand opera is intended to pack such a wallop to the senses. That we have an-aesthetized those senses through (some of) the trappings of modernism should give us pause enough to invest the several hours required for such a mutually rewarding endeavor as an afternoon spent with Don Carlo.

"There he goes again being an utopian idealist.
Silly tenor.
Next he'll be quoting poetry!"
In point of fact, he shall.

The last stanza of In Flanders Fields reminds us why we need (tragic) art to begin, why Shakespeare and Verdi--poetry and music--help us feel more alive by helping us be more fully human.

Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

I shall not break faith with Don Carlo as it has generously shared its wealth with me since I started my love affair with it, as an idealistic undergraduate at James Madison University some years ago. Of the 6 productions I've viewed, this new one is my favorite. But I love Don Carlo from his opening aria to Elisabetta's grand scena nearly 4 hours later regardless. Though I loathe the despicable villain, the Grand Inquisitor gets my attention and holds it every second he's on stage (his duet with the King following Philip's great monologue is a coup upon a coup)! Verdi wrote greater tragedies (Otello) and grander epics (Aida), but Don Carlo has a special power that seems to emanate from the mysterious tomb of Charles V of its source. Beware. It just might become your favorite opera, too...

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Let us recount our dreams...

[I posted the following on my Musings blog, and it references earlier posts there. But the opera that prompted this musing is one I want our audiences to experience in a future season...]

The third act of Britten's opera A Midsummer Night's Dream embodies the cliché "from the sublime to the ridiculous." The act opens in a fairy-land evoked by shimmering violins in three-part divisi playing in their upper register. It is among the most beautiful music its composer wrote.

The Fairy King, Oberon undoes the spell he cast on the Fairy Queen, Tytania. She awakens to a recapitulation of the violins' theme that swells in sensual crescendo with the entire orchestra, complemented by cascading harp glissandi. It's a wonderful moment in an act of musical theater that is full of felicities and surprises.

Upon waking her first lines are:

My Oberon! what visions have I seen!
Methought I was enamor'd of an ass.

By my troth, thou wast! For Oberon hath played a trick on the fair Fairy Queen (with the timeless theatrical device of the love potion) which made Tytania fall for the first thing she laid eyes upon. To her shame and the audience's delight, she espied the lovably boorish weaver, Bottom. They would qualify for opera's most unlikely couple were Bottom NOT turned by fairy-magic into the form of a donkey. But an ass he is. Or was.

Britten has been rightly praised for the ingenious ways he evokes the differing worlds of Shakespeare's fairy tale (for kids of all ages). The Fairy land is differentiated from the lyrical but earth-bound music for the pairs of Athenian lovers (themselves victims of love potions and spells). The human realm of the Athenian nobles is marked from the world of the simple "mechanicals," the rustic men who form a rankly amateur theater troupe in their off hours. It is appropriate that Shakespeare's prototypes for the dry, slapstick brand of British humour (en vogue through Monty Python) should be given music that parodies parallel operatic stereotypes.

But when I saw the engaging and thoroughly entertaining production of Britten's opera recently in Chicago, I was surrounded by opera loving philistines who neither responded to the double entendre of puns like Tytania's or the ridiculousness of the rustics "play within the play." There were a small handful of subscribers in the upper balcony who laughed out loud--a good production of the play AND the opera IS laugh-out-loud funny. But more people either walked out or audibly voiced their incomprehension at the slapstick antics and raw wit.

To cite one ridiculously funny instance among many, the play "Pyramus and Thisby" features the classical amateur "ham" actor (Bottom) as the hero Pyramus. His beloved Thisby is played by the awkward young man, Flute in drag. They meet on either side of a wall (which is played to hilarious effect by a fellow rustic, Snout) and try to kiss through a chink in said wall. The kiss does not go well and "Thisby" cries in "her" strained tenor "I kiss the wall's hole/not your lips at all!" That's funny. And funnier in a good production. Which this was.

The humorlessness of hardened, "serious" music lovers did not diminish my enjoyment. But it is a reminder of how difficult communication can be and how vital it is for the human channels to stay open. As others have corroborated, a culture that loses its sense of wonder, mystery OR its sense of humor is in trouble.

I think we are even more uncomfortable with raw, in-your-face emotion than we are with bawdy humor. "We" being polite, educated, middle class (mostly white) "culture." Consumers of "serious" music and "high" art.

In one of Alex Ross's recent New Yorker reviews he writes penetratingly about the reception of Leonard Bernstein's serious music. He quotes Bernstein's description of Britten's music as "gears that are grinding and not quite meshing." Ross says Bernstein "might better have been describing his own work."

I think both men--who had an interesting, episodic relationship from Bernstein's conducting of Britten's first opera, Peter Grimes in 1946 through Britten's death in 1976--have been misunderstood. Ross goes on to describe the musical language of Bernstein's opera, A Quiet Place. Before noting that at its premiere it was "criticized as a hodgepodge--nearly every Bernstein score was criticized as a hodgepodge," Ross makes one of those observations that reminds me why he's one of my favorite critics.

"It's as if he [Bernstein] were healing the twentieth century's stylistic divides, with Romanticism as the meeting ground; at several crucial points, the orchestra enters a beautifully ominous space that might be described as Cold War Mahler."

That "hodgepodge" style and the bridging of stylistic distances was something Lenny and Benjie both did quite well, even if they were much criticized for it. Their music is unfashionably conservative from the avant-garde's perspective. The "grinding gears" (which now amount to very mild dissonance--film scores can be much more grating) have been wrongly associated with "ugly" modernism. This still puts off many listeners (those for whom "I know what I like" usually translates to "I like what I know"). I think both factors contribute to the checkered reception history of both composers' works. But I think something else is in play. Their music is emotional and romantic and direct. And such openness makes all kinds of (western) people uncomfortable.

I couldn't choose which evocative world of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream I like best. The metaphysical realm of the fairies is wonderful (and has more of Britten's infectiously charming music for children). I love the bel canto opera parodies in the finale's play within the play (they were a wink in the direction of La Stupenda, Joan Sutherland, who'd recently sung in Britten's Gloriana to great acclaim). And the music the Athenian lovers sing upon waking from their dream (which gives this rambling ditty its title) is ravishingly beautiful.

In a recent dream I had I looked up at the night sky and the stars lit up like night-lights, like bright white dots in a pointillistic Seurat canvas, shown in relief against a background of pitch. I have no idea what that image represents, but it was cool.

I'm reading a wonderful book of art criticism, Caspar David Friedrich: And the Subject of Landscape (Joseph Leo Kerner. Reaktion, 1990, 2009). Kerner takes some time to connect the threads of early 19th-century German culture, the birthplace of the "Romantic." I was reminded of a recent post below on "fragments and hedgehogs" (which may well become the title of the book I want to turn this all into) as I read quotes from the visionary romantic poet, Novalis:

"The world must become Romanticized. That way one finds again the original meaning. Romanticizing is nothing but a qualitative potentializing."

Jawohl! Restoring some of the balance our rational, goal-oriented, technology-driven western world has misplaced would involve realizing more of our affective (and metaphysical) potential and might just restore some of the lost "original meaning."

Kerner hasn't referred (yet) to Jung or John Dewey, and his book predates Iain McGilchrist's efforts to give the right brain its due (all referenced in posts below) but the "meaningful coincidence" of synchronicity is there when we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

And like beholding more of the stars, even this reception requires effort. Just a couple of pages after the Bernstein review in the same (Nov 15) New Yorker, John Lahr reviews a new production of Tony Kushner's groundbreaking epic, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on American Themes. He quotes a note Kushner had written the cast of the opening night run in LA in 1992:

"And how else should an angel land on earth but with utmost difficulty? If we are to be visited by angels we will have to call them down with sweat and strain...and the efforts we expend to draw the heavens to an earthly place may well leave us too exhausted to appreciate the fruits of our labors: an angel, even with torn robes, and ruffled feathers, is in our midst."

Yes it is. I love Tony Kushner. I love his bold, audacious vision, his passion and the range of raw emotions his characters evoke and the all-too-human states they embody. He is a modern-day prophet and poet and the scope of his imagination lives up to such titles. In another example of critical excellence, Lahr writes about "one of the most thrilling of Kushner's verbal arabesques--[in which] Harper has a vision of repair for the ozone layer, whose hole has obsessed her doom-filled days:"

Souls were rising, from the earth far below, souls of the dead, of people who had perished, from famine, from war, from the plague, and they floated up, like skydivers in reverse, limbs all akimbo, wheeling and spinning. And the souls of these departed joined hands, clasped ankles, and formed a web, a great net of souls, and the souls were three-atom oxygen molecules, of the stuff of ozone, and the outer rim absorbed them, and was repaired.

What souls! "What visions have I seen!" I feel like Walt Whitman yawping an open-throated affirmation of life itself. Or like Lenny: "And it was good, brother, and it was goddam good!"**

As the Athenian lovers wake up from their disturbed visions, they sing in chorus,

Why then we are awake; let's go,
And by the way let us recount our dreams.

Let us wake up and connect the dots of our lives into lyrical canvasses that mend the tears by recounting dreams. Why shouldn't we?

(**The quotation comes from Bernstein's Mass, another theater work involving parody & satire, not to be confused with blasphemy &/or gratuitous profanity)

Thursday, November 4, 2010

7 Reasons to Hear Richard Zeller Nov 7

Opera Roanoke is celebrating National Opera Week with an "opera unplugged" recital November 7 featuring "one of America's foremost baritones," Richard Zeller.

We've been offering promotions in honor of the celebration all week, and we'll be giving away tickets at our "free-for-all" booth outside Center in the Square at the Historic Roanoke City Market Friday from 11-1.

Since inquiring minds want to know what this recital thing is and what to expect, I offer the following annotated list.

7. A Sunday matinee of live music is one of the best ways to add some variety to a fall season of game-days. Add some cultural spice to your weekend ahead of the holiday shopping rush. Give yourself a gift. Feed your senses and your soul by spending 90 minutes with Richard Zeller Sunday.

6. The songs Richard will be singing are ravishingly beautiful. The pop ballads that have been crooned in showers and cars for generations owe their provenance to the 19th century Romantic "art song." And you don't have to understand German, French or Russian to appreciate how gorgeous the songs of Schumann, Brahms, Duparc and Rachmaninoff are. Their meaning will be obvious through Richard's performance. And the basic human emotions of longing, love and loss have never been set to more ravishing music.

Schumann's bicentennial is this year, but we don't need an excuse to program the music of this romantic who was a prototype of the tortured artistic genius. Besides being one of the great composers after Schumann, Brahms was one of music history's most talented babysitters, looking after the Schumann children while he cut his teeth as a composer.

Duparc left us only a handful of songs, but what exquisite miniatures they are. If a single song can be a self-contained world unto itself, Duparc's are a perfect example. And if you've never heard a great Russian song, then Rachmaninoff's are worth the recital alone. The beautifully haunting lyricism that perfumes the music we associate with the "Russian soul" is embodied in these songs.

5. The arias (that is, "songs" extracted from operas, not to be confused with the stand-alone "art" songs) Richard is offering feature music that will put a smile on the faces of all: young & old, opera buff and newcomer. The Toreador Aria from Carmen is one of the most beloved tunes in the world, and if you don't recognize the title you will recognize the tune (and want to hum along)! This great aria--full of life and spirit--is a prime example of why opera is not the distant, remote, inaccessible art some still think it is.

4. The standards from the Broadway stage are American classics. Some Enchanted Evening is one of the most popular songs of all time, and if you've never heard a voice like Richard's sing this music --burnished, resonant, full-bodied (and un-amplified)--then you have never heard it the way it was intended to be sung. As familiar a song as it is, I cherish the chance to hear a singer like Richard sing it.

3. And speaking of American classics, Richard is including a wonderful slice of "Americana" in a set of songs by Robert MacGimsey. "Sweet little Jesus Boy" is a classic of the American folk song tradition. One would be forgiven for thinking it was the product of the African American spiritual tradition. In fact, its composer was a caucasian man who studied and worked with black artists and paid tribute to his apprenticeship by adopting his teachers' style.

2. If you've been to a recital by a great classical singer like Richard, you know what a special experience it is. Words like "magical," "transcendent" and "powerful" are but a few of the adjectives to describe this concert featuring one voice accompanied by a single piano. The "opera unplugged" moniker is an apt one. Whatever you call it, recitals like this are a special occasion; we are fortunate to have them here at Opera Roanoke every season.

1. The single best reason to come on Sunday is Richard Zeller himself. Richard's voice is a mirror of his person--warm, rich, strong and full of character. When a great singer like Richard opens his throat to sing the listener is offered a window into his soul. The opportunity to enter into the world of an opera singer through the solo recital is a singular experience.

To be invited & lured into this realm heightens the magic of the experience while rendering its expressiveness even truer to life. Why else do we call such voices "larger than life?!" To be captivated & entranced by such resonant tones emanating from a singer only a few feet away is thrilling. If you've ever been impressed by a singer on a show like "America's Got Talent" then you're in for a treat. America has talent indeed, and a supreme example of it will be in Roanoke for one day only November 7 at 2:30 pm on the Shaftman Performance Hall Stage at the Jefferson Center in downtown Roanoke. I hope you will be there too.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Celebrate NOW with Opera Roanoke

It's National Opera Week: Celebrate NOW with Opera Roanoke! Click on the link below to read about daily ticket specials. Share this with your friends on Blogger, FB, Twitter and join us for an "opera unplugged" recital with one of the greatest voices in the country, Met opera baritone, Richard Zeller. I'll write more on his program later.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Soul of Russia: Boris Godunov

In the middle of the 19th-century, shifting political winds and rapidly changing regimes were accompanied by tides of nationalism across Europe. The arts manifest such currents through various means (achieving a variety of ends). Opera has been a primary artistic vehicle for such historical representations. Though this may not be an obvious conclusion to draw today, Opera was a populist art form until the 20th century. But that is another essay. One example should suffice. Not only the operas but the name of Verdi became a literal acronym for Italy's nascent movement of independence (Viva Emanuele, Re d' Italia).

In Russia, a circle of largely self-taught composers based in St Petersburg represented the Russian soul in music and were dubbed "The Mighty Handful." Borodin, Cui, Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky effectively launched the "Petersburg School" that inspired Russian composers from Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov to Prokofiev and Stravinsky to Shostakovich.

According to the writer Solomon Volkov, the music of the so-called Petersburg school is characterized by "brilliant orchestration, exotic harmony, emotional 'wavelike' development of material a la Tchaikovsky and dramatic 'Dostoyevskian' contrasts a la Mussorgsky."

The last description is central for understanding the masterpiece of Russian opera Boris Godunov is. The Mighty Handful (or Russian Five) were interested in bringing a dose of realism to the palette of musical drama and looked to Dostoyevsky as much as any Russian writer.

Boris is based on a drama of Alexander Pushkin (the source of Tchaikovsky's most famous operas Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades, among other seminal Russian musical dramas). Mussorgsky's style more closely aligns with Dostoyevsky's expressionist realism than Pushkin's lyrical romanticism. One of the novelist's specialties was the confessional monologue (the tortured conscious of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment). The composer adapts this technique and the title character has dramatic solo scenes rather than traditional arias. This "cross breeding" of music and prose happened parallel to Wagner's through-composed style of music dramas. Without Boris Godunov the operatic masterpieces of composers disparate as Debussy (Pelleas et Melisande) and Shostakovich (Lady McBeth of Mtsensk) would not be what they are.

Like Pelleas, Boris is a "slow burn" of a piece. Over three hours of music, much of it dark-hued and brooding, brings to life a tale wrought with woe. The received wisdom on Boris is that the opera has two protagonists: the title character and the Russian people. This duality works on a number of musical and dramatic levels and palpably affects those who yield to the power of this great opera.

Synopses are widely available so I will share a few examples from the opera and the new Met production available now thanks to the "Live in HD" broadcasts. The work is framed by huge ensemble tapestries that voice the people's discontent. That these scenes mirror and parallel one another is more than a formal nicety. The director of the Met production, Stephen Wadsworth (whose 11th hour ascension to that role is itself operatic) says "the opera is about history repeating itself." This is nowhere more apparent than in the scenes of "regime change" that open and close the opera. "The tragedy of history," as the Met's Season Book quotes the director, "[is] that we always forget its lessons and make the same mistakes."

If Boris is an epic political-historical drama on one level, it is a family-character drama on another. The opening scenes of the opera are great choral tapestries (lovers of Russian choral music can luxuriate in the timbre of the Met chorus which has never sounded better). The 100-voice chorus heralds the "coronation scene" where Boris accepts the Tsar's crown. Rather than the expected "pomp and circumstance" of a victory speech, his first words are "my soul is sad." Until his death in Act IV-in one of the most moving scenes for a character on any stage-Boris is haunted by his great crime. Like a tragic Shakespearean king, ambition led Boris to have the rightful heir to the crown murdered (years before the opera opens). Boris' confessional monologues throughout the opera underscore the duality of his shame and regret and his futile attempts to purge his guilt by ruling as peacefully and benevolently as he can. The intimacy of the scenes between Boris and his two children (perfectly cast in the Met production) strengthen our ties to this tortured soul and help define Boris as a fully drawn, three-dimensional tragic hero. The Met has the Boris of the present generation in the great German bass, Rene Pape. In the 15 years I have been avidly following Pape's rock-star like ascension on the world's operatic stage, he has never been more engaging than in this compelling production.

Space does not allow for the various versions, revisions and posthumous attempts to "correct" Mussorgsky's opera. Again, synopses of these facts are widely available. The composer's original 1869 version lacked a female lead and was uniformly rejected. Mussorgsky's revised 1874 version added an act set in Poland to kill several operatic birds with one stone. The "Pretender" Grigory (a heretic monk who assumes the identity of the murdered heir to the crown) flees to Poland and romances the princess Marina (the opera's prima donna is a mezzo soprano). The scheming Jesuit priest Rangoni uses this relationship in his attempts to place the Pretender on the throne and with the help of the imminent (Polish Catholic) Tsarina convert Russia to the mother church (the composer's contempt for institutions did not stop at the academy).

The so-called Polish Act thus gives Boris Godunov a prima donna, a love story, ballet music (a la Polonaise) and the grist of sub-plot intrigue. The ardent singing of the Latvian tenor Alexanders Antonenko (Grigory) and the oily, pitch-perfect characterization bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin brought to the Jesuit Rangoni sustained my attention during an act I usually skip at home. Whether the Polish Act enhances or detracts from the work as a whole is in the eye (and ear) of the beholder.

It does lengthen an already long "song." But time plays a central role in Boris, metaphorically speaking.

T.S. Eliot famously wrote near the end of his musical poems, The Four Quartets:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

(from "Burnt Norton")

One of the recurring motifs in the score is the sound of tolling bells. At the start of the coronation scene pealing chimes are punctuated by the brass with the most notorious of intervals, the tritone (an augmented 4th or diminished 5th). Known as "the devil in music" this unstable interval has been both sign and symbol since it was so termed in the medieval period. In the opera's context the portentous tolling of the bells represents time as progressive and cyclical. The tolling bells also illuminate the protagonist's diminishing grasp on reality (like Lucia, Boris disintegrates from hallucinations to death).

When the bell struck at the death of Boris, nearly 4 hours into the evening, I was not the only one in my circle of friends at the Met Monday night who wept.

And if Boris were a more conventional opera (the Polish act notwithstanding), it would end with the title character's death. But the aforementioned crowd scene which mirrors the opening is essential to Boris as a whole. The "unredeemable" quality of time is present in the mob that tortures and kills the figures it earlier feted.

Though not unique to Mussorgsky the "Holy Fool" (or "village idiot," the simpleton or yurodivy, in Russian) is a secondary-and central-character in the drama. From Shakespeare's fools and jesters to Beckett's tramps, these outcasts are prophetic voices of insight, wisdom and truth (with a capital T).

In the Met production, a larger-than-life-sized book haunts the scenes like a specter (into which the aged monk, Pimen writes his chronicle of history, ending with a chapter on Boris' crime). The yurodivy's first appearance in Act IV ends with a pivotal confrontation with Boris. In one of the most haunting moments in an evening that has lingered in my consciousness for days, the Holy Fool lies down in the book and folds one of its pages over his battered body like a blanket.

Mussorgsky identified with the Holy Fool in his own life. His friends referred to him as a yurodivy. The lament with which the entire ensemble opens the opera is assigned at the end to the lonely prophetic voice, poignant, "eternally present" and ultimately tragic as this great opera:

Flow, flow bitter tears.
Weep, weep, Christian souls!
Darkness darker than night.
Weep, weep, Russian people,
Hungry people!

[Boris Godunov is broadcast in Roanoke October 30 at 1 pm at Virginia Western Community College. For more information visit or Save the date for Opera Roanoke's next "Opera Unplugged" recital, November 7. Hear Met opera baritone Richard Zeller sing songs of Rachmaninov and much more! 540-982-2742]

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Faust & Furious: A Ride with the Devil!

I began this morning at the (for me) ungodly hour of 5 am on WDBJ 7's Morning show. You should be able to cut and paste the following link into a new window (I'm not a savvy enough blogger to know how to disguise these codes):

In between our spots discussing Opera Roanoke's season opening concert, Faust and Furious: A Ride with the Devil! we heard updates on the rescue of the Chilean miners. Tag-lines like "hear Heaven and Hell battle it out before your very ears" assumed an uncanny resonance as the story unfolded before the rapt attention of the world.

This reverberation was underscored when I returned to my office mid-morning (following a visit to a local middle school to talk about opera in general and Faust in particular). One of the Roanoke Symphony Chorus members had left a thoughtful message and shared this quote from the 2nd miner to be rescued, Mario Sepulveda:

"I was with God, and I was with the devil. They fought, and God won."

She noted the proximity of the miner's metaphor to the Faust story the chorus has been rehearsing in preparation for our gala-style concert October 16.

Faust is the most famous work of literature in the German language, and one of those tales that can truly be called immortal. None of the middle schoolers raised their hands when I asked them if they'd heard of Faust, but most of them acknowledged familiarity with the Charlie Daniels' Band song, "The Devil went down to Georgia."

The Faustian Pact or Bargain is synonymous with moral &/or ethical compromise made for material gain. "The devil made you do it," "selling your soul" and "giving the devil his due" are just a few catch phrases for the Faustian arrangement which forfeits the soul for temporal satisfaction.

So everyone knows who Faust is. Many may be unfamiliar with Goethe's Faust or the Doctor Faustus of Christopher Marlowe or Thomas Mann (an allegory for Germany itself in the Nazi era). But Faust has inspired movies from The Devil and Daniel Webster to The Devil's Advocate to Angel Heart (with Robert DeNiro playing the devil with the subtle name of Louis Cyphre). Gordon Gekko in Wall Street can be viewed as a "Doppelgänger" character of Faust and Mephistopheles.

A recent article on a theatrical adaptation of Fitzgerald's great jazz-age novel, The Great Gatsby, described it as "a classic American tale of reinvention, self-delusion and broken dreams." That's an apt description of Faust, who reinvents himself with a little supernatural assistance from Satan to revel in youth and sensual pleasure.

On October 16, Opera Roanoke will present excerpts from the three most famous operatic adaptations of Goethe: Gounod's Faust, Boito's Mefistofele, and Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust. Some of the music will be familiar to nearly everyone, as Gounod's lyrical melodies, rapturous duets and ensembles earned him the title "the composer of love." And even music which may be unknown to many, like Boito's evocation of the "music of the spheres" in his "Prologue in Heaven" to Mefistofele has the ring of familiarity because of its elemental quality.

The image of heaven and hell in conflict evoked by Mr Sepulveda also reverberates back to the Biblical book of Job. Boito mirrors the introduction to Job by pitting the voices of heaven (the chorus) against Satan (a bass solo, sung by Opera Roanoke favorite Jeff Tucker) over the question of Faust (both Faust and Marguerite are sung by Roanoke audience favorites. Tenor Dinyar Vania and soprano Barbara Shirvis complete our all-star cast of archetypal characters).

During the breaks this morning between the TV interviews, we commented on the story of the miners and the rumor that a movie of the saga was already in the works. I couldn't help but leap to the question of what kind of music would partner the story. The live and unedited coverage needed no soundtrack other than the sounds of human voices and applause. When soundtracks are called for, they work best when using the styles and techniques of musical drama. In opera, music IS the soundtrack that evokes the entire range of emotions, relationships and conflicts that shape human life from cradle to grave and intimate towards the beyond.

Ultimately, Faust is a tale of redemption. Gounod and Boito reinforce this with endings that are nothing short of ecstatic apotheoses. Berlioz stays true to his title (the Damnation of Faust) and literally goes to hell and back. He serves up an example of musical onomatopoeia in his "Pandemonium" that will take your breath away. You may not have time to catch it again before Gounod and Boito enact transcendence itself with some of the most rapturous music ever written. All three composers have enlivened an immortal tale with music of engaging vitality worthy of this complex existence we call the human condition.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Met's Live in HD: Das Rheingold preview

I wrote a preview of the Opera Roanoke season and the Met Live in HD broadcasts last week, and now that I've seen Das Rheingold for myself, I'll write a bit about what audience members can expect when they attend the broadcast in Roanoke at Virginia Western on Oct 10. I will start with a brief "listener's guide" and then offer a brief review of the performance and production.

(For a detailed synopsis, you can go to the Met website or any number of other online sources).

The opening of Das Rheingold is pure genius. It represents the Rhine river in a long unfolding over one basic chord (E-flat, a key associated with the the divine in Bach and the heroic in Beethoven). As the Met playbill puts it "there is nothing in all of opera like this miraculous beginning." Wagner's description of its origin may be apocryphal, but is nonetheless colorful as the music itself.

"I awoke from my half-sleep in terror, feeling as though the waves were now rushing high above my head...I quickly understood the very essence of my own nature: the stream of life was not to flow to me from without, but from within."

And from that "stream of life" a 2 1/2 hour "prologue" in four seamless scenes emerges from the depths of the Rhine and ascends to Valhalla, the castle of the gods.

Out of the these watery origins emerge three Rhine Maidens, mermaids who guard the opera's eponymous subject, the gold of the Rhine. Space does not allow for the volume that could be written on Wagner's use of leitmotiven ("leading motives"). Risking oversimplification, consider these motives as aural clues. Musical signs and symbols. Character traits manifest through music. The Rhine Maidens effervescence (and their dangerous coyness) is reflected in the music they sing and the orchestrations that accompany them. The lord of the Nibelungs, Alberich, is characterized by dark and brooding music before he sings a note. Listen for the subtle but significant shift in tone in the lower strings that heralds Alberich's appearance. Listening to Wagner is like reading with your ears. And one of the measures of a good stage production--of any opera in any style--is how it complements and partners the music. I think this new production is a resounding success in that regard.

Each of the scenes in Das Rheingold has a pivotal dramatic point. In the first scene it comes when Alberich renounces love and steals the gold. Like so much of Wagner, the drama is writ large in the music, allowing the ear to trace the narrative.

One of many felicities of this opera is the musical arch Wagner traces between the scenes. These orchestral interludes function on two levels by serving the musical drama and facilitating the changes of scene. The transition into the second scene introduces us to Wotan, lord of the gods and his wife Fricka in music of noble breadth (richly scored wind and brass orchestrations) that informs us through the ears who these characters are.

The second scene pivots around Wotan's contract (one of several areas over which he presides) with the giants who have built the castle, Valhalla. After the marital dialogue that allows us to literally listen in on two complex people in a complicated relationship, we hear the drama accelerate. Freia enters in music out of the romantic German tradition of sturm und drang ("storm and stress"), pursued by the twin giants, coming to collect her as wages for their labor.

The second scene introduces us to the gods and giants and the scheming demigod Loge, lord of fire. This mercurial character (the adjective is literal) has music that hums and buzzes and busies about like the intriguer Loge is. Whenever his music sounds in the trilling upper voices of the orchestra, you know something is afoot.

The second interlude descends into the nether regions of the Nibelheim and the music shifts accordingly into the arrestingly industrial sound of 18 anvils pounding away behind the scenes of Alberich's sweatshop. The confrontation between Wotan, Loge and Alberich results in Alberich's capture. When Alberich proves his powers of sorcery by turning into a giant snake, the music reveals the source of virtually every film score written since. You can hear when trouble is eminent and/or when these characters are up to no good! One fleeting moment of humor is orchestrated near the end of this scene when Loge tricks Alberich into transforming himself into a small toad. Listen for the "ribbit" in the clarinets, and do not accuse Wagner of lacking any sense of humor!

The final scene pivots on Alberich's curse of the magic ring he is forced to relinquish to Wotan. As in Tolkien's famous epic, the ensuing drama unfolds around a ring cursed for its power. That curse comes in the first section of the final scene, and it is the last we hear of Alberich for some time. Another character who appears infrequently--but is always pivotal--has one of the best entrances in all of opera. Erda emerges from beneath the earth's surface to warn Wotan of the ring's evil power. The curse is fulfilled for the first time just minutes later when the giants fight over the ring Wotan has reluctantly given them. You could close your eyes and hear exactly when, where and how Fafner kills his twin brother Fasolt over the ring.

After all this grim drama, some supernatural wonder is called for, and Wagner delivers with short "arias" for the brothers of thunder and lightning, Donner and Froh. Donner's hammer clears away the clouds and Froh builds a magic rainbow bridge to carry the gods into their new castle of a home, Valhalla. Even if you've never seen or heard Das Rheingold, this music should sound familiar, like an old friend whose acquaintance we know even if we can't place its origins. The triumphal ascent into the castle completes the musical arch begun in the Rhine in the richest "prologue" to opera's greatest epic.

The big news of the Met's new production is Robert Lepage's 21st century production involving a 45-ton set dubbed "the machine" with interactive technology that responds to the singers' movements and voices. It's simply brilliant. And a beautiful example of technology in the service of art.

The video projections on the set work on multivalent levels like the music. The machine's transformation from scene to scene mirrors the music. It is a beautiful use of space and design. It is a "unit set" (that is, one primary set piece that serves every scene, varied through lights and props) for the 21st century that only a multi-million dollar production could support.

Watching the machine transform from the deep-hued water of the Rhine (in the prelude) to a virtual shell-bed upon which the Rhine Maidens play (in the first scene) was thrilling. As was each of its transitions throughout the evening. The Met and the NY Times have videos and photo galleries linked (and we have linked some of those on the Opera Roanoke Facebook page). The move to and from Nibelheim was the most dramatic and was literally a sight to behold. The lighting was perfect. The range of gold, copper and bronze (burnished with chiaroscuro shadings) to depict Alberich's realm evoked both the gold's lustrous allure and the uncomfortable darkness of slaves' quarters.

The visual claustrophobia of Nibelheim was relieved by the brilliant laser-light rainbows at the conclusion. It is one of the most visually striking productions I've seen. And it was innovative without being indulgent. It was also traditional and faithful to Wagner. It was servant and collaborator to and with the score.

And how well was the score served! For starters and closers, Wagner couldn't have a better collaborator than James Levine. I bravoed when he first appeared in the pit; the ovation that greeted his arrival was worthy of the stature of one of the most treasured maestros in operatic history.

And the Met has assembled a cast to deliver the goods. From supporting roles like the Rhine maidens (who are alluring vocally and visually) to the key players of Wotan and Alberich, this is a well-sung Rheingold. Eric Owens was the best sounding "bad guy" I've heard in the often thankless role of Alberich. I heard singing that would make him a formidable Wotan. The star of the Met's new cycle is the great Welsh bass-baritone, Bryn Terfel, and he lived up to his hype (the Met's expensive PR campaign features life-size posters on bus stops with Terfel's Wotan and the tagline "mingle with the gods"). Stephanie Blythe was Terfel's partner, and her rich mezzo is as compelling as any singer in her class. Patricia Bardon's Erda was memorably sung, and other supporting roles like Dwayne Croft's Donner and Adam Diegel's Froh commanded attention with their ardent vocalism. I was particularly happy to hear Adam's Met debut, as we shared a memorable fall together in Tulsa several seasons ago. It is always a thrill to share a friend's success.

More than any other opera composer, Wagner rises or falls with the orchestra and conductor recreating his musical dramas. The Met Orchestra's playing under Maestro Levine was simply superb. They sounded magnificent--incisive and finely etched in executing the motivic details and beautifully shaped in the sweeping grandeur of Wagner's vision. I was thrilled and cannot wait for Die Walküre next spring!

Get your Met in HD tickets online from Opera Roanoke or Virginia Western Community College, or at the door Sunday, October 10 at 1 pm.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The New Season(s)

I am eagerly anticipating the start of the opera season here in Roanoke, and over the next two weeks I will write more about the two events that loom largest on our horizon:

1. The Met "Live in HD Broadcasts" open in Roanoke at Virginia Western Community College on Oct 10 with the "live in HD" movie broadcast of Das Rheingold, the first installment in the much touted new production of Wagner's Ring cycle.

2. Opera Roanoke's curtain raiser, Faust & Furious: A Ride with the Devil! follows on October 16 at Shaftman Performance Hall.

The digital revolution that has changed the music world (in every genre) underscores the unique thrill of the live concert experience. While the convenience of mp3's makes music more accessible than ever, there is simply no substitute for the "real thing" itself. We are fortunate to live in an age with both.

I love having at my fingertips (via my laptop or ipod) thousands of "songs" from my favorite operas. I have playlists for my favorite composers beginning with John Adams and ending after Wagner. A new discovery for me this summer was satellite radio (a feature of my GM hybrid) and my dial is set to Sirius XM 79, where I listen to live Met recordings from their 75-plus years of archival recordings. Though not the same as being there, it is the next best thing. I'll take it.

In the Met's monthly magazine, Opera News, the current issue features an article by Brian Kellow provocatively called "The Crowd Snores."

Kellow recalls those halcyon days before text-messaging, when audiences were focused on the performance and not their blackberries. Passionate intermission discussions featured partisans of rival divas rather than the latest fantasy football results (disclosure: I have a blackberry and text; I know very little about fantasy sports teams).

As I write this, a Met broadcast from 1979 is playing of Massenet's great opera Werther (not to be confused with the gold-wrapped candy, Goethe's "hero" is pronounced "VerTARE"). A young Kathleen Battle is in a supporting cast led by Alfredo Kraus and Regine Crespin. Werther is the first Massenet opera Steven and I want to bring to Roanoke audiences. If you know the opera, you know why it gets our vote. Stay tuned.

A recent broadcast featured the debuts of two of the great stars of their--and any--day. Franco Corelli and Leontyne Price both debuted in a 1961 production of Verdi's Il Trovatore. The ovation that greeted their curtain call lasted 42 minutes. Think about that for a moment. Also featured in that thrilling performance was a young Canadian soprano about to make her breakthrough, Teresa Stratas, and the great American mezzo, Irene Dalis (a name familiar to Opera Roanoke for her work here with our company's founders).

Sirius XM radio broadcasts live from the Met several times a week during the regular season. It plays "encore" performances during the summer. Our own Steven White's performance of La Traviata was broadcast in August. I know I wasn't the only listener with chills up my spine and tears in my eyes when I heard Steven's name announced at that curtain call!

The Met manages to sell several thousand tickets a night for most of its season. All of those Traviata performances were sellouts. I hope all of Opera Roanoke's supporters will help ensure a rousing ovation and a full house for Maestro White, the RSO, and the 200 other performers joining him for our season opening concert, Faust and Furious: A Ride with the Devil!

I will be the Master of Ceremonies for this most spectacular concert in Opera Roanoke's 35 year history. I am looking forward to the highlights from all three versions of the Faust legend represented in our operatic concert suites on October 16. In particular, I can't wait to hear:

*Boito's awesome evocation of heaven itself in the Prologue to Mefistofele;

*Berlioz's wild and literally crazy version of all hell breaking loose in the onomatopoeic "Pandemonium!"

*The transcendent hymn that closes Gounod's grand opera, Faust.

But before that "save the date or be damned" concert on October 16, the Met is coming to Roanoke, live and in high def. Before the Met comes to Roanoke, Amy and I will be making a quick trip to NYC to see the new Rheingold production in person.

On the Met's homepage ( there is a link to a photo gallery of the new Rheingold, including a short video that illustrates why I am describing this new production as Lord of the Rings meets Cirque-de-Soleil. The latter is literally true, as the French-Canadian production team includes Cirque designers.

Other imminent highlights of the Met season (also coming in the HD broadcasts) are two of the grandest operas in the repertoire. THE embodiment of the Russian spirit is Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, featuring the operatic bass (who most closely resembles a rock star), Rene Pape.

Later this fall comes Verdi's epic masterpiece, Don Carlo. Both operas feature new productions. In the opera world, this is newsworthy as a star quarterback debuting in a new jersey in the NFL (both are ridiculously expensive).

I had the privilege of standing in the front row of a chorus behind the great Italian basso, Ferrucio Furlanetto, who will sing Verdi's version of the real life King Philip of Spain in Don Carlo.

Before Mussorgsky's and Verdi's great basso characters come to the Met, Amy and I will hear Thomas Hampson's portrayal of Verdi's Macbeth in a new production at Lyric Opera of Chicago (LOC).

Albert Camus wrote that the tragic hero "denies the order that strikes him down, and the divine order strikes because it is denied." This dramatic tension is present in great operas of every epoch. One of the grandest of operatic tragedies is Puccini's Madama Butterfly, the centerpiece of Opera Roanoke's season. The most popular opera in the US is also featured by Washington National Opera and Virginia Opera, both of whose productions run concurrently with ours.

Roanoke is the only place to hear Yunah Lee, THE Madama Butterfly of today. The same issue of Opera News I referenced above reviewed Central City's production from this past summer:

"The big appeal of this Butterfly was the presence of the Korean-American soprano Yunah Lee, who has made the opera's wronged title character her signature role. Lee handled the not inconsiderable vocal demands of the role with aplomb but also did a superb job of conveying Butterfly's shifting, contradictory feelings that are so beautifully evoked by Puccini's score--eroticism, innocence and guilt."

Opera is the stuff of life and as we say at Opera Roanoke, it's "life with a melody." But it is more than great tunes. Opera comes with incomparable harmony, is live in 3D and engages all of the senses. Our tagline this season is HEAR the drama, SEE the music, BELIEVE it's Opera Roanoke.

I hope to see you at the opera(s) soon.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

"Why Opera?" (My Address to CITS Annual Dinner)

Below is the text of the keynote address I offered the attendees of the Center in the Square (CITS) Annual Dinner Sept 16, upon the request of some inquiring minds. I should say it's the text upon which my speech was based, since I didn't stick literally to the "script."

(I will return soon with an article or two about the upcoming MET HD broadcasts, and Opera Roanoke's season opener, Faust & Furious).

Thank you, Steven. I can't begin to express the depth of my gratitude for not only this opportunity and all those you've afforded me, but for one of the most important friendships in my life. Roanoke is incredibly fortunate to have you and Elizabeth in our midst. I also want to thank Jim (Sears) and George (Cartledge), all the CITS staff, the volunteers, and everyone involved in the capital campaign. It is a sign of your visionary leadership and commitment that you have mounted such a successful campaign in this climate. I'm reminded of one of my favorite quotes. Writing on the eve of WWII, C.S. Lewis observed:

"If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun."

Why Opera and why Opera Roanoke? I will try to answer both in about 7.’

We are about to begin our 35th Season: Hear, See, Believe:
Hear the Drama; See the Music; Believe it’s Opera Roanoke.

The experience of opera itself is one of the WHY’S. Looking for inspiration where other answers go, I turned to one of my heroes, Clint Eastwood. There are many days when I look in the mirror and ask "Well, punk; do you feel lucky?" And the answer most days is yes. Seriously, I was inspired by Clint's recent film Invictus, where Nelson Mandela (played by Morgan Freeman) inspires the captain of the (mostly) white rugby team (played by Matt Damon) with the question HOW?

“How do we inspire ourselves to greatness, when nothing less will do?
How do we inspire everyone around us? It is by using the work of others…"

So, I'm going to follow that advice and use the words of others to describe our opera season...

Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work… Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big.

The Chicago Architect, Daniel Burnham, writing at the turn of the 20th century, could have been talking about our Opening concert, Faust and Furious, A Ride with the Devil. Mo. White will lead more performers than ever assembled on the Shaftman Hall stage in bringing an immortal tale to life. Joining three world-class, internationally-fêted stars will be the RSO & RSOC, my professional chorus, the Virginia Chorale, the Liberty University Chorale and our own Roanoke College Children's Chorus. 300 performers in a concert like you've never heard!

And if you don't recall that Goethe was the Shakespeaere of Germany, don't worry. If you need to "brush up your Goethe," fear not. Like all opera, it’s about love & death. Eros & Thanatos. Served with a twist. In this case, Satan. So save the date or be damned. You don’t have to sell your soul, just buy a ticket. Even if the Devil makes you do it, be there!

Opera is “larger than life”—it is so emotionally direct; it “takes the basic human emotions, pinpoints them, and magnifies them” (Bernstein), unfurling them towards you in the most splendid way imaginable! We don’t call it GRAND opera for nothing! The sheer range of expression in Opera is unsurpassable—and the means—the raw power of the naked human voice is like nothing else. The poet William Meredith puts it this way, in “About Opera:”

An image of articulateness is what it is:
Isn’t this how we’ve always longed to talk?

But it’s not GRAND in the exclusive sense, that it requires a special degree or indoctrination in order to GET it. The person sitting next to you doesn’t speak Italian either. But you both speak “human.” Opera was always meant to be a popular art, and a social one. And long before it was PC or necessitated by recessions, opera has always been the most collaborative, the most inclusive art form we have: music, word, drama, design, dance, & stagecraft & on…

Opera is the “total work of art” and makes for the grandest of experiences. And that grand, one-of-a-kind, larger-than-life world is at the heart of our season in a fully staged production of Madama Butterfly. Puccini’s masterpiece is the most popular opera in the US. If you’ve seen a great production, you know why. If you haven’t, you have two chances right here: March 18 & 20. And you can help guarantee our future as we consider the "how," "what" and "where:" join our matching-gift production fund campaign to ensure staged productions return to stay.

Our Season offers a rich variety of offerings. In between Faust & Mme Butterfly we get Intimate & personal with our Stars in the Star City Recitals. Think of these concerts as Opera Unplugged. One singer. One pianist. Nothing between his soul and your ears. Nothing between her voice and your experience.

This weekend, our colleagues in the Kandinsky Trio open their season at Roanoke College. I can’t wait to sit among the audience, forget about the rest of the world for a few blessed moments, and be transfixed by the power of Elizabeth Futral’s singing in the inimitable setting of the recital. Elizabeth will be gracing us with her beautiful voice and arresting stage presence in our Season finale, Mother's Day Serenade. Whenever I watch a great artist like Elizabeth, I feel the magic of the vicarious experience—those moments where we lose (or at least forget!) our selves and experience something other, something special, something extra-ordinary! Whether it’s attending the theater, looking at a painting, watching a film, reading a book—the vicarious experience is central to our existence. Why opera? Why NOT is the tougher question.

In Invictus, Mandela also says: we must all exceed our own expectations...

CITS is doing just that with its visionary campaign. And we at Opera Roanoke are thrilled to be a part of it, excited by the possibilities for collaboration, innovation, and rejuvenation. Among our new ventures this year are the MET HD broadcasts, hosted by Virginia Western Community College, and through their generous sponsorship, benefitting Opera Roanoke. These live, High Def movie broadcasts are a perfect entrée into the wonderful world of live opera. We are continuing our Sempre Libera program. That’s Italian for “always free” and it describes our ticket policy for students: always free. Just call us. We are launching an Apprentice program for local and regional college & university students this year. That’s the "why" and "where" for right now. And our future?

Looking ahead I envision an Opera Company that features a festival season with varied offerings of full productions in repertory, collaborating with not only our current partners like Center, the RSO & the Jeff Center, but our museums and galleries, the Ballet and MMT, and local businesses. This Opera Festival would help turn Roanoke into the tourist destination it could be, and build on the vibrant cultural center, that thanks to friends like you, it already is. Leonard Bernstein’s description of what makes opera great also applies to cities like ours:

Any great work of art is great because it creates a special world of its own. It revises and readapts time and space. And the measure of its success is the extent to which it makes you an inhabitant of that world; the extent to which it invites you in and lets you breathe its strange, special air…when we come out it, we are enriched and ennobled.

This is YOUR Opera Company. The great American conductor (and "father" of choral music in the US), Robert Shaw, speaking to his newly formed Collegiate Chorale in NYC, said:

This choir no longer belongs to one man. It belongs to each of us, everyone.
And what it does or fails to do from now on is your credit or your fault…
You don’t join the Collegiate Chorale. You believe it.

I will see you at the Opera. Thank you very much.

Postscript: below are the most famous couplets from the poem, Invictus. Below that is the excerpt Mandela actually read to the Rugby captain to inspire the team.

from Invictus, by William Ernest Henley

I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul...

I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…who strives valiantly; who errs… because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. (Theodore Roosevelt, April, 1910)

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Arts Education: Against Ignorance

The following arrived in my inbox today from Opera America:

National Arts in Education Week, September 12-18, 2010
On July 26, the House of Representatives passed a resolution designating the second week of September National Arts in Education Week. Introduced by Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA), the Congressional Resolution declares, "Arts education, comprising a rich array of disciplines including dance, music, theater, media arts, literature, design and visual arts, is a core academic subject and an essential element of a complete and balanced education for all students."

How telling that so essential a topic as arts education has been completely ignored as the nation focuses on a prospective act of base ignorance, the so-called "International Burn-a-Koran Day" scheduled for September 11 by an ignorant pastor and his misguided flock of 50 in Gainesville, FL.

One article I saw earlier today had the best advice I've seen yet:

"The best way to respond to Quran burnings is Quran readings, recitations, teaching, learning, sharing, living the best of the principles found therein," said Zaheer Ali, a New York Muslim leader and doctoral student at Columbia University. The pastor in question, Terry Jones, would make an excellent candidate for Ali's assignment, since he admitted having "no experience with it [The Quran] whatsoever."

One month ago I posted an essay called "An Ideal of International Harmony" and it referenced conductors like Georg Solti's and Daniel Barenboim's efforts to bring together ensembles of international personnel to embody just such an ideal.

Consciousness and conscience have been much on mind and in my heart this summer. While I try never to use this platform as a political forum, nor even veer towards the polemic, I do think we--as artists and fundamentally, human beings--should be more bold in affirming our common humanity and speaking, singing, playing & acting against ignorance.

I have also been referencing disparate voices that have been on my reading list this summer, and as is my wont, trying my best to weave them together with common threads. I believe one of my primary roles as an artistic director is to be an educator. And not just to middle, high school, and university students. The E.M. Foster epigram, "only connect" motivates me to fill in gaps in my own education. Gaps in our heads lead to holes in our hearts. Ignorance is the enemy of empathy. When coupled with fear & fueled by prejudice, ignorance leads to atrocities like the Inquisition and the Holocaust. The multi-layered textures of art are an antidote to ignorance. They are a rich source of tradition & learning, inspiration & innovation, and are a great place to start filling in those gaps of consciousness and conscience.

One of the compliments I treasure most is when someone remarks on the thoughtfulness of my programming. One of the Chorale's critics wrote last fall "if any area organization takes its education mission seriously, it is the Virginia Chorale." He was not referring to our Young Singers Project. He was referencing an eclectic program that combined familiar and unfamiliar repertoire, and juxtaposed Renaissance madrigals with a modern Shakespeare setting by Dominick Argento dedicated to the tragedy of September 11, 2001.

Another recent addition to my summer reading list is a new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Its subtitle is "Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy." Bonhoeffer was executed for his role in the Stauffenberg "Die Walküre" plot to assassinate Hitler (the story was made into a recent film starring Tom Cruise, Valkyrie).

The book's chapters feature epigrams from Bonhoeffer's incisive writings and quotes worth remembering:

"When books are burned, they will, in the end, burn people, too."

That quote by the German, Jewish-born poet Heinrich Heine mirrors Sigmund Freud's chilling observation (following a 1933 "cleansing" of "un-German" books): "Only our books? In earlier times they would have burned us with them."

One of the most famous poems of conscience is quoted in Eric Metaxas' biography. It comes from a colleague of Bonhoeffer's, who made the tragic mistake of giving Hitler an early benefit of the doubt.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a Jew.
And then they came for me--
and there was no one left to speak for me.

--Martin Niemöller

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan has just ended, and the Jewish High Holy Days have just begun. I listened to my favorite Chanticleer recording earlier in honor of the interconnectedness of the three central Abrahamic faiths (that would be Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, in order of seniority). And on Earth, Peace features movements representing all three. The Turkish-American composer Kamran Ince contributed "Gloria (Everywhere)" which opens with a wonderfully fragrant image from the 13th century Sufist poet Rumi (who lived in what is now Afghanistan):

the aroma of God
begins to arrive

The heart of the 12' movement sings an interfaith message of international harmony:

Moslems and Christians and Jews
raising their hands to the sky
their chanting voice in unison
begin to arrive

Later on the poet offers an antidote to ignorance all sides of today's bitterly divided world should heed:

if your eyes are marred
with petty visions
wash them with tears
your teardrops are healers
as they begin to arrive

(from Fountain of Fire, Rumitrans. by Nader Khalili,
Burning Gate Press, 1994, and CalEarth, 1996)

"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent." Wittgenstein's most famous aphorism creates a wide berth of application. Those who have not read the Quran and have not had conversations with Muslims have no business speaking about the subject, whether it be a Muslim community center in lower Manhattan or Islam itself.

"Those who do not know history are destined to repeat it," said the founder of modern political conservatism, Edmund Burke. One of the best op-ed pieces I've read during this xenophobic summer comes from The Philadelphia Inquirer's Dick Polman. "Where has all the love gone?" was reprinted in Sunday's Virginian-Pilot. He quotes at length comments "in the best American tradition" of considerable insight & intelligence, from a source that might surprise quite a few readers. They come from a 2007 ceremony at the Islamic Center in Washington:

"We come to express our appreciation for a faith that has enriched civilization for centuries. We come in celebration of America's diversity of faith and our unity as free people. And we hold in our hearts the ancient wisdom of the great Muslim poet Rumi: 'The lamps are different, but the light is the same.'" (George W. Bush)

The Chorale and Opera Roanoke are preparing to open their 2010-2011 seasons in October. The Chorale is performing music written by another victim of Hitler's Third Reich, the Lutheran composer, Hugo Distler. Opera Roanoke is opening with a gala-style concert based on three different versions of Goethe's Faust legend. Goethe is to German literature what Shakespeare is to English. A paradigm of the lifelong learner, Goethe began studying Arabic in his 60's, to learn more about Islamic art and culture. Daniel Barenboim's orchestra of middle-eastern musicians is named after Goethe's cross-cultural collection of poetry, The West-Eastern Divan.

Neither program is built or centered on interfaith dialogue, consciousness or tolerance. But music has a special power. It won't stop violence nor cure ignorance. But it shines a light into the hearts of those who open to it. A light lit, to borrow from the Quran, "within a crystal of star-like brilliance."

The ancient Chinese proverb, "it is better to light one candle than curse the darkness" is eminently good advice, for activists, artists and human beings of all parties, creeds, and affiliations.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Fragments & Hedgehogs...

In Guy Maddin's quirky 2003 film, The Saddest Music in the World, Isabella Rossellini holds a contest (to award the movie's title) in order to save her struggling Winnipeg brewery. I recently received a review copy of a book that anoints Barber's Adagio for Strings for the crown, entitled, The Saddest Music Ever Written.

The saddest music written in the western world is found in the death-haunted song cycles of Franz Schubert, and in his two Wilhelm Müller cycles, Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, in particular. If there is music more painfully hollow than the close of the latter set, than I can't wait to be so devastated by it.

Schubert's great cycles affected every song writer who followed him, and that influence continues to be felt--not only in classical music but in the worlds of jazz, pop, dance & theater. The composer most obviously in Schubert's debt was Robert Schumann. Even when finished, the miniature form of the art-song leans toward the fragmentary, and Schumann relished this fact in his great song-cycle, Dichterliebe. The opening song famously begins in the middle of a phrase, and ends with an unresolved cadence echoing its ambiguous beginning.

What is it about the romantic fragment? Charles Rosen's book, The Romantic Generation (based on his Norton lectures at Harvard) devotes nearly a third of its 700 pages to two chapters: "Fragments" and "Mountains and Song Cycles." Musicians know his more famous The Classical Style, which is rightly one of the ur-texts on the period of Haydn, Mozart & Beethoven.

Slowly sip the following sentence (about Schubert's Schöne Müllerin) to understand why I love this book so:

"The time of this song cycle is that of Romantic landscape: not the successive events of narrative but a succession of images, of lyrical reflections which reveal the traces of the past and future within the present."

Speaking of images, he simply lists the resonances of one of the cycle's primary symbols, the color green: "green is the color of hope, the color of the fading ribbon with which the poet hangs his lute upon the wall, the traditional color of the huntsman's [rival of the poet/composer] costume, the color of cypress, of rosemary, the color of the grass that will grow upon the poet's grave. Fluctuations of meaning replace narrative: they stand duty for action."

"Fluctuations of meaning" describe one aspect of the open-endedness of fragments, symbols and images. Fragments, aphorisms & epigrams, memory & dreams, relics & ruins--each and every one may be independent, sufficient unto itself.

Like water's inexorable need to stream--its restless coursing for a path in & through which to flow--is our human desire for space, room to breathe, and literal and figurative openness.

Rosen quotes the Romantic poet (under-appreciated in the English speaking world) Friedrich Schlegel on our subject:

"A fragment should be like a little work of art, complete in itself and separate from the universe like a hedgehog."

As I imply above, the fragment satisfies one of our needs for openness: to not have everything explained, every punchline spelled out. But if the hedgehog reference is opaque:

"The hedgehog (unlike the porcupine, which shoots its quills) is an amiable creature which rolls itself into a ball when alarmed. Its form is well defined and yet blurred at the edges. This spherical shape, organic and ideally geometrical, suited Romantic thought: above all, the image projects beyond itself in a provocative way."

And isn't that what we want from any "image" (or work of art)--to project "beyond itself" and provoke/evoke/invoke thought, feeling, response, release &/or relief?

We are stimulated when the familiar is made strange and the strange made familiar (to borrow from another under-appreciated romantic, Novalis).

Barber's Adagio is itself fragmentary in that it is the central movement of a three-movement string quartet. Many fans of this piece are unaware of both its origin and the vivacious music Barber wrote to encapsulate it. That it can be taken out of context and so beloved is but one sign of its value.

Another fragmentary torso (see Rilke's great sonnet, "The Archaic Torso of Apollo," referenced often in my essays and program notes) is Mahler's unfinished 10th Symphony. The visionary Adagio he left behind would have been the opening movement of another epic symphonic canvas. The last of his own works he heard performed was his 8th Symphony. His song-cycle symphony, Das Lied von der Erde (his 9th entry in the symphonic genre) his 9th symphony and his unfinished 10th form a valedictory--if fragmented--triptych of posthumously received masterpieces.

In the literary world, a similar phenomenon is still occurring with the posthumous publications (in English, especially) of the Chilean writer, Roberto Bolaño.

I am a promiscuous reader. One version of purgatory would limit me to only one book at a time (not being able to read would be hell). In addition to a half-dozen or so open books at any given time are a number of magazines and journals I look forward to receiving regularly. My favorite section of Harper's magazine is the "Readings" section near the front. I finally opened August's issue to find an excerpt from a Bolaño "story," "Literature + Illness = Illness" from yet another posthumously published collection (he died in 2003 from liver failure at age 50).

Bolaño's fame in the English-speaking world materialized like a brilliant star in the sky we hadn't noticed. Never mind that the source of its light was extinguished. The Savage Detectives, 2666, and Nazi Literature in the Americas (novels of 700, 1,200, and 200 pages, respectively) form the triptych on which this wildly ambitious writer's fame took shape in the US beginning in 2007.

Bolaño's output during the last years of his short life is astonishing. He only began writing fiction (poetry preceded it) in his last decade. As a result, each new volume that appears is eagerly anticipated by nerdy bibliophiles like myself. Bolaño was a bibliophile himself who also lived pretty hard during his fifty years. His work, like that of many an artist, has the patina of autobiography. He lived hard and worked feverishly. The line between working one's self to death and partying one's self to death must be as gray as his diseased liver was before it--and life--failed him. Equally gray is the line between autobiography and invention in his stories.

In the recent Harper's excerpt, "The Writer is Gravely Ill," death haunts the paragraphs as it does Schubert's syphilis-tinged songs. The narrator is in hospital and is suffering from liver disease. His "story" leaps from a thin narrative thread to references ranging from French poetry to German philosophy to sexual appetite and travel, ending with the narrator's--and author's--favorite modernist, Kafka. Bolaño's wit is as unpredictable and various as the Borgesian (and Kafka-esque) layers of reference that fill his tales with a deliciously dense polyphony.

Novalis said "fragments of this kind are literary seeds...if only a few were to sprout!" In tales like Bolaño's, they have--and whether or not helped by the tragic irony of posthumous "fame"--they continue to.

Who knows if Bolaño's life may be the stuff of great theater or opera (his passionate voice certainly sings with verismo fervor). His brief life's work is sprouting with meanings, beautifully provocative as a hedgehog.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


One of many books open on a shelf or table or stand is The Monster Loves His Labyrinth: Notebooks by the poet Charles Simic. Wry, epigrammatic, and breezily swinging between the worlds of poetry and prose, a (slightly longer than) typical entry reads:

"My ideal is Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, a catalog of many varieties of mopiness human beings are subject to, everything from the gloom caused by the evils of the world to the kind caused by lovers' squabbles. Burton, who is one of the great stylists in the language, wrote the book to relieve his own low spirits. The result is the most cheerful book on general unhappiness we have."

We could adopt that last statement to describe many a melancholy-tinged opera: the most beautiful music ever heard--as the soundtrack to a tragedy!

Yet isn't that oxymoronic irony precisely WHY we venerate tragedy? (And isn't "oxymoronic" as fun to say as it is to write? Right? But we were writing about tragedy & art...). The beautiful AND the tragic: pain and suffering made meaningful through the transformative power of art? If that is not exactly it, then maybe it's the opportunity art affords in both vicarious experience and (as close as we can come to) objective observation. Through the tragedy given life via art I can better comprehend the political machinations that end in regicide, and more fully empathize with the all-too-human protagonist while experiencing the vicarious thrill of winning the battle/seducing my lover/defeating my adversary.

I mentioned Camus recently, and his collection of Lyrical and Critical Essays has been in the mix. He ends a notebook-like piece on travel, "The Sea Close by" with this operatic image:

"I have always felt I lived on the high seas, threatened at the heart of a royal happiness."

The opera quiz question from that quote: in which opera might Albert Camus feel most at home? I'd vote for The Flying Dutchman. Bluebeard's Castle could also apply, as we can easily leap from the pirate's "high seas" of freedom to the threat of land-locked prison.

Back in real life, the dedicatee of Arvo Pärt's 4th Symphony, Los Angeles, is a Russian political prisoner, A. Khodorkovsky. Commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the symphony is also concerned with guardian angels, whose presence the composer does not question. When asked what "idea" was behind the "guardian angel" subtitle, the 75 year-old composer (whose voice is mellifluous as his placid music) would have none of it. "What idea?!? There is no idea. It is reality. They are all around us. If more people could realize this..."

I heard the UK premiere at the BBC Proms (online). The quote above is from an interview with the composer, the one below is from the online program notes.

Pärt wrote of the symphony as "an expression of great respect for a man who has found moral triumph and personal tragedy. The tragic tone of the symphony is not a lament for Khodorkovsky, but a bow to the great power of the human spirit and human dignity."

Now there's a great description of the role of the tragic in art. Pärt's music traces an arc through it's three-movement structure, maintaining an undercurrent of calm (characteristic of his "holy minimalist" style). This stoic foundation generates material that unfolds and unfurls before returning to the still center. It is music for the soul.

In addition to Pärt's 75th birthday, it is the 250th of the soulful (and woefully neglected) composer Luigi Cherubini (I omitted Cherubini from a recent post about 2010 celebrations). Cherubini wrote one of the great tragic operas of the period in Medea. It was one of Maria Callas' most famous portrayals, but has since fallen out of fashion. Brahms had three portraits in his studio: Bach, Beethoven, and Cherubini. Beethoven thought Cherubini was the greatest composer of his (and their) day. Cherubini is buried a few feet away from his much more famous younger friend (whose bicentennial is also 2010), Chopin.

Ah, memory. And our relationship to it and history. Chopin has no need of an anniversary to be played or appreciated, and Cherubini can't get a notice even with a milestone occasion.

Before I do my part to correct that imbalance by playing my Callas recording of Medea (with a young Renata Scotto as the Seconda donna), I will share a few lines of a favorite poem by William Meredith.

The central line of "About Opera" is one answer to the question of why we respond so enthusiastically to this unnatural, excessive, melodramatic, implausibly over-the-top art form:

"Isn't this how we've always longed to talk?"

He closes with a wonderful quatrain that is both endearingly awkward and pitch-perfect in metaphor:

"What dancing is to the slightly spastic way
Most of us teeter through our bodily life
Are these measured cries to the clumsy things we say,
In the heart's duresses, on the heart's behalf."

(from Effort At Speech: New and Selected Poems, William Meredith. Triquarterly, 1997).

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The most wonderful time of the year...

I am not going to write about carols nor the Holidays. It is the time of year when Artistic Directors of all shapes and sizes write and edit their new Fall season program books. In my case, this means typing out the programs themselves (the real fun is in choosing them) and writing program notes (rewarding in itself, to write about one's loves).

And for the two organizations at whose helm I stand, I also draft, revise & revise again an opening letter--a welcome and hello, a pitch & manifesto.

C.S. Lewis, writing on the eve of WWII, inspires me every time I consider:

"If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun."

One of my jobs is to motivate and inspire community members to participate in arts organizations like the Chorale and Opera Roanoke. I used to take the tack the critic, Virgil Thompson dubbed the "music appreciation" racket: This stuff is good for you; it makes you smarter, more urbane, more sophisticated, more cosmopolitan AND cultured, etc, etc. It's healthful.

That approach, though valid on at least one level, can be condescending and moralistic. Though I still quote music's ameliorating effects on individuals and communities when writing grants and talking to corporations (music students score higher in other academic areas, choristers are more likely to volunteer & vote and are therefore, statistically speaking, better citizens!) I try to appeal directly to the heart when it comes down to it, because that's where this music touches me.

Donald Barthelme wrote, "one of the properties of language is its ability to generate sentences that have never been heard before." Music shares the same ability to generate combinations of sounds that have never been heard before in exactly the same harmony. We could ponder that metaphor alone for some time: the always individual & unique character of harmony in music.

Pause to consider the multiple resonances of the word "harmony." Not only "harmonious," and mellifluous adjectives (like those to describe music) are conjured, but so are harmony's opposites: discord, dissonance. From "harmonious marriage" to "political discord" a range of stimuli and responses appear in our consciousness and resonate in our bodies. With music, we can consider both the intellectual & philosophical resonances and thus better appreciate the idea of "harmony." We can also reflexively respond--pierced to the heart or punched in the gut--to the visceral power of the music. Harmony affects us in many ways. This is just one possible example of how an "artistic" experience comes to be.

Music is also special for offering participants the opportunity to hear something new--something different, something special--with every hearing. This truth resonates on two levels. While a painting may offer the viewer new insight with every viewing, only the live arts (like music and theater) offer the same along with what I will term "reception multiplicity." The opportunity to receive stimuli on more than one level, in more than one way. The painting changes the viewer, the viewer does not affect the painting. The music affects the listener, AND the listener affects the music. Because every live performance is unique, the audience-performer(s) dynamic becomes a factor in that equation.

If that seems academic and/or esoteric, here's another inspiring quote about creativity, inspiration, dreams & plans:

“Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big.”

The 19th century Chicago architect, Daniel Burnham said that. I know it courtesy of my friend, the architect Steve Wright, one of the best board members I've ever known. Steve always knows exactly what quote to share with me or which question to ask in order to bring me back to artistic center. Sometimes, even we preachers of the "gospel of the arts" need our own dose.

The Grandaddy of arts preachers was Robert Shaw, the father of American choral music in the 20th century, the conductor who put the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus on the map, and one of the best advocates for the arts we've had in speech and print.

He was fond of saying "falling in love requires three things: being in the right place at the right time for long enough time. Beethoven is not loved if Beethoven is not met. We have to play/sing/listen to Beethoven to meet him and fall in love with him."

And music is oh-so-worth the time! Lawrence Kramer has written a wonderful book of arts "sermons" with the rather bald title, Why Classical Music Still Matters (I wrote a "Musings" blog last August, called "Bearing the Music of the Heart" for those enquiring minds who want to read more about the book). He speaks of how

"This music provides as much insight as it invites; thinking about it gives me a means of pondering big questions of culture, history, identity, desire and meaning...The music stimulates my imagination and my speculative energies while it sharpens my senses and quickens my sense of experience."

That resonates with me. I'd bet it would with most professionals musicians & musicologists who, if forced to admit, still crave the (multiple leveled!) euphoric joy created by the experience of making music.

Kramer puts the message another way: "Don't deprive yourself of this pleasure, this astonishment, this conception!"

The great British symphonist Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote to his colleague, the great Finnish symphonist, Jean Sibelius, "You have lit a candle in the world of music that will never go out."

One of the reasons these candles are inextinguishable is because "great" art transcends the specific & temporary to resonate with the universal and timeless. How else can we account for the fact that at any given moment in history, somewhere in the world, someone is performing Handel's Messiah, Beethoven's 9th symphony, and any number of other monuments to the history of western music, one of the richest traditions any civilization has ever had. Period.

Conductors have been saying for generations that every one [both conductor & generation] must find/create their own Beethoven 9th symphony--the "Ode to Brotherhood &/or Freedom, Triumph, Peace, Glastnost, etc..." (depending on your generation).

“Classical music offers both an antidote to the distractions of the world and the adaptations required to negotiate them…It will invite you to hear meanings it can have only if you can hear them, yet it will give you access to meanings you had no inkling of before you heard the music.”

That means, along with pop-culture (entertainment like TV & movies), classical music can be a means of escape. It is entertainment as it stimulates our senses. And (and here's one avenue where it often parts ways with "mere" entertainment) it transcends the mundane to create meaning, impart substance and provide significance.

“Music teaches the value of a moment by giving that moment value,” wrote the poet, Anna Kamienska.

For all the reasons we've noted above, Norman Rockefeller wrote that philanthropy was "not a duty but a privilege."

Our audiences should feel the same way about attending our concerts and operas.