Anna Netrebko, the voice of contemporary opera

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Soprano Anna Netrebko is truly stunning, on par with–if not better than–any of the operatic greats. My friend, also an opera singer, introduced me to her work a few months ago and since then I’ve been getting as many recordings of Netrebko as possible. I’m a mezzo soprano (aka, an alto), so I’m pickier about soprano voices. Some are overly nasal, breathy, flutey, thin, what-have-you, but Netrebko’s soprano voice sounds–dare I say it?–perfect to my ears.

Here Netrebko sings one of the most famous arias of all time, O Mio Babbino Caro:

And here she performs the gorgeous Flower Duet from Delibes’s Lakmé with mezzo Elina Garanca:

Lastly, here’s Netrebko onstage in one of her most celebrated roles as La Traviata’s Violetta. She sings the Brindisi (Drinking Song) with tenor Rolando Villazón as Alfredo.

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La canzone è bella

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I love Roberto Benigni’s 1997 film La Vita è Bella (Life is Beautiful), which somehow brings grace and humor to the horrifying subject of the Holocaust. The first hour of the film actually takes place prior to the deportation of Jews from Italy, as Roberto’s character Guido woos Dora (played by Benigni’s real wife, Nicoletta Braschi). In one scene, he goes to the opera because he knows she’ll be there. I was 11 when I first watched this, which was before I truly loved opera, but I remember being mesmerized by the gorgeous duet in this scene. Being 1997, this was also pre-Google, so I tracked down the opera by finding the film’s soundtrack in a CD store (remember those?) The following duet is the Barcarolle from Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman:

The duet returns later in the movie after Guido, Dora, and their young son Giosué are interned in a Nazi concentration camp. Though their surroundings are bleak, Guido does what he can to instill beauty in their lives. Fittingly, the Barcarolle begins with the lyrics “Beautiful night, oh night of love, smile on our joys…”

Silent Night on the Western Front

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Opera is, perhaps, in many people’s minds a thing of the past. Though opera houses continue to put on productions, we might think that all these shows were written many decades, or even centuries, ago. While Mozart and Donizetti, Puccini and Verdi continue to be among the most popular composers, there are indeed new operas commissioned every year. The Minnesota Opera’s 2011-2012 season, for instance, will include a world premiere of “Silent Night,” composed by Kevin Puts.

This opera is based on the true story of a 1914 Christmas Eve ceasefire between the Scottish, French, and German soldiers on the western front. This ceasefire was unauthorized and lasted just the one night, but is remembered as a testament to the ability of the human spirit to overcome hostility. The opera will be sung in English, German, French, Italian and Latin.

Here is the ceasefire dramatized in a 2005 French film, Joyeux Noël (not great quality, but with subtitles):

The many faces of Carmen

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The story of Carmen began almost two centuries ago and continues to enthrall and be adapted for new audiences. Prosper Mérimée based his 1845 novella, Carmen, on an 1824 Pushkin poem, titled “The Gypsies,” which he’d translated from Russian to French. Composer Georges Bizet and librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy used Mérimée’s novella as a basis for their opera, also titled Carmen. And since then over three dozen film adaptations have been made, Carmen is one of the most performed operas in the world, the ballet version has been performed over 5,000 times, and Bizet’s music, as I mentioned yesterday, is ubiquitous in advertising and movie soundtracks.

The story itself is the stuff of classic opera tragedy: temptation, love, betrayal, death. Set in Sevilla, Spain in the early nineteenth century, it centers around Carmen, a beautiful gypsy girl who works in a cigarette factory. Don José, an inexperienced corporal, meets and falls in love with her when he comes to arrest her for having stabbed one of her coworkers in the factory. Though he gives up his law-abiding life and his adoring fiance for her, Don José loses Carmen’s love after a while. When she falls instead for a famous bullfighter, Escamillo, Don José kills Carmen in a rage.

Last summer when I was in Madrid, I was thrilled to find that my hostel was around the corner from a theater putting on a flamenco version of Carmen–my favorite opera combined with my favorite dance form. Flamenco is a natural adaptation of the opera, as the dance form originated in the gypsy district of Sevilla. I had a huge grin on my face as the lights went down and Bizet’s Prelude came piping into the theater. But my grin began to fade: prerecorded music? And when the dancers were lit up on stage, trying to dance flamenco to Bizet’s rhythms (flamenco-inspired, perhaps, but thoroughly in the tradition of western classical music) I frowned. This show was a mess. After the Prelude ended, though, the music abruptly shut off, and a group of live flamenco guitarists began to play. And then the dancers knew what to do. I sat grinning through the rest of the show, even when the live guitarists had to make way for the famous prerecorded arias a few more times. It was a mongrel of a show, but beautiful nonetheless.

Following are three clips from very distinct versions of Carmen. I’ve added the clips in the chronological order of the opera itself, so that the first leads into the second and the second to the third, even though, as you’ll see, they are quite different.

The first clip is from a 2006 production of Carmen at Covent Garden, sung by Anna Caterina Antonacci. When the Sevillano men ask Carmen to love them near the beginning of Act 1, she responds with the Habanera:

After Carmen sings this ode to free love, she disappears inside the cigarette factory. Shortly thereafter she gets into a dispute with another girl. Carlos Saura’s 1983 flamenco film has an excellent scene of the knife fight:

Don José arrests Carmen for the attack, but she immediately begins to seduce him. Here’s Beyoncé in the role of seductress from the 2001 MTV Hip-Hopera, putting the moves on Mekhi Phifer:

Perhaps after two centuries of adaptation all these variations are mongrels, but the amount of innovation that goes into each one is exciting.

How to be an opera singer

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What you’ll need: good lung capacity, strong vocal chords

Songlist: Bizet’s Habanera from Carmen, Opera Singer by Cake

Further reading: Living Opera by Joshua Jampol

It ain't over til...oh. I guess it's over.

When I graduated from elementary school into middle school, I thought it was about time for me to take an interest in adult things. Adult things, as far as I knew, were dull things, and dull things were often “cultural” things. I vowed to read at least one article a week in that magazine that showed up incessantly in our mailbox, The New Yorker (unlike the much more exciting Seventeen that arrived only once a month), and to enjoy our visits to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts that I’d always groaned about in my youth.

To help me in my cultural enlightenment, my parents bought me four tickets to the Minnesota Opera’s Der Rosenkavalier that year for Christmas. The friend I invited wore spats and a monocle to the performance, and I wore a cashmere-blend sweater and leather gloves that my brother had brought back for me from Italy. We thought we were the epitome of class as this friend led me up the stairs of the Ordway on his elbow. But when the opera started, I think we both realized we were in over our heads. The singers were so far away, the German–which both my friend and I were studying in middle school–largely unintelligible, the “opera jokes” unfunny (the entire audience inexplicably erupted into laughter when a dwarf ran onstage to pick up a handkerchief dropped by the Marschallin). My friend briefly fell asleep in the third act. I didn’t, but the temptation was great.

Van Gogh's Olive Trees at the MIA

My other cultural experiments were going well: I discovered that, though there are few pictures, The New Yorker was fabulously interesting, and that I absolutely loved the Impressionist room at the MIA, which holds a Monet haystack and Van Gogh’s Olive Trees. While proving to myself that I was not a cultural illiterate, I thought maybe opera was just something I would not understand.

In high school, however, I began to take voice lessons. My voice teacher gave me jazz classics to sing, some Broadway show tunes, some Italian and German art songs. And she gave me Carmen.

The music of Carmen is instantly recognizable to Americans who think they have never heard opera before. Advertisers and film scores alike draw heavily on Bizet’s classic, as I was reminded this past weekend while watching There’s Something About Mary (Ben Stiller’s second bathroom scene of the movie is accompanied by the Danse Boheme, a beautiful piece that builds in noise and tempo to a brilliant, uh, climax). The famous Habanera has been featured in such diverse movies as Up, Trainspotting, Magnolia, Superman Returns, and Meet the Parents and in the TV shows Clerks and Six Feet Under.

About the time that I was learning Bizet’s Habanera and the Seguidilla arias, a group of singers from the Minnesota Opera’s Young Artist Program visited my high school. They described a typical day in their lives: German, French, and Italian lessons, yoga and acting classes, vocal training sessions and group rehearsals. It sounded like heaven to me. And though I am blonde, blue-eyed, midwestern American, I was sure that I would follow in their footsteps and someday sing the role of Carmen onstage at La Scala or the Met.

The closest I got to that dream was singing the Habanera for my senior recital on Central High School’s stage–not exactly the Met. Though I was able to perfectly mimic the Maria Callas recording at home, I was sick the night of my recital and the aria didn’t come out as beautifully as I’d hoped. And though a kind acquaintance said I’d done well (I knew better), I realized that sickness is not an option in the life of an opera singer. One bad night and you might be booed off the stage, or out of a job if your understudy upstages you. Even Maria Callas, my opera heroine, ruined her voice too early from improper singing technique.

The summer after my senior year, I finally saw a live performance of Carmen at the now defunct Theatre de la Jeune Lune in Minneapolis. The theater was much too small for a full orchestra, so two pianists had the difficult task of providing the entire accompaniment. Unlike at the Ordway Theater in St. Paul, the audience sat right against the stage, encircling the singers. The sets were non-existent, the costumes simple. Thus, there was no ornamentation–the performance hinged upon the quality of the singing. And it took my breath away. I still vividly remember the Habanera, which mezzo-soprano Christine Baldwin began by striking her foot in the dust in that famous rhythm without any accompaniment at all. The performance was electric, intimate, gorgeous, one you wouldn’t have to know anything about opera to enjoy. And though I doubt I could keep my voice in good enough shape for the profession, sometimes I still imagine myself at the Met in a dark wig and flamenco skirt singing “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle…”