Sunday, June 7, 2009

DFW: A Belated Acknowledgement of Genius

I somehow managed to pass the last ten years without reading anything written by David Foster Wallace. While it was impossible to avoid the encomiums and panegyrics following his September 2008 suicide, his work was until then unknown to me. DFW was mentioned and a video clip of him played at an April 2009 legal writing seminar I attended. The seminar was put on by Bryan Garner, a legal writing guru and usage expert. I have followed Garner for some years and find his works on legal usage, legal writing, and writing in general to be top notch. In addition to playing the DFW video clip during his seminar, Garner spoke of him on at least a couple of occasions.

A month later, while I was browsing the shelves of a Minneapolis bookseller plugged by Garner, Magers and Quinn, I sighted Consider the Lobster, a collection of DFW essays. I opened to a random page and saw that I was looking at a review of Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage (ADMAU). I was intrigued by the logrolling and read a bit.

There are moments in one’s life when one remembers being exposed to something remarkable for the first time. I recall that in 1977, while a freshman at college, I heard Mozart being played at orchestral volume on a good stereo. It transfixed me. Thirty-two years later I still recall the wonder and thrill of this moment I recognized the beauty and genius of Mozart (and classical music in general) while standing in the doorway of a college dorm room. A similar feeling came over me as I began turning the pages of DFW’s essay on Garner’s ADMAU. The writing was distinctive: DFW uses footnotes that are sometimes pages long and sometimes contain their own footnotes; he uses acronyms and abbreviations frequently and in unusual ways; he employs sesquipedalian and obscure words with beauty, because he—in the way that Picasso mastered realism before proceeding to abstraction—earns the right to use uncommon words and does so with taste, purpose, and flair. I bought the book.

What a joy! I started in the middle of the book with "Authority and American Usage," DFW’s 60-page book review of ADMAU. Of course this is unlike any book review I had ever read. Besides its length, the review is a sprawling tour: the “language wars;” DFW’s youthful fascination with language; wedgies; language and race relations; and Garner’s ethos. And whatever role he fulfills at any particular moment—whether humorist, instructor, or rhetorician—DFW shows that he has mastered it.

His writing is funny. I was particularly taken by his reference to his father’s misspelling of “meringue,” which he dates to precisely September 14, 1978. You must love someone who has preserved the date of a parent’s spelling error and put it before a national audience twenty years on. And then, a couple of pages later, while talking about the arbitrary nature of spelling, in searching for a word to use as an example, he circles back and just happens to use “meringue.” At times the essay is funny enough to make one roar out loud, which I did as I read the section on Academic English and two given examples of obscurantism. The first example was one unearthed by Garner, an excerpt from a Sacramento Bee article:

If such a sublime cyborg would insinuate the future as post-Fordist subject, his palpably masochistic locations as ecstatic agent of the sublime superstate need to be decoded as the “now all-but-unreadable DNA” of the fast industrializing Detroit, just as his Robocop-like strategy of carceral negotiation and street control remains the tirelessly American one of inflicting regeneration through violence upon the racially heteroglassic wilds and others of the city.

The next example was taken from the Village Voice:

At first encounter, the poems’ distanced cerebral surfaces can be daunting, evading physical location or straightforward emotional arc. But this seeming remoteness quickly reveals a very real passion, centered in the speaker’s struggle to define his evolving self-construction.

The piece is amusing throughout.

It’s also informative and very scholarly. First DFW demonstrates that he possesses the necessary credentials. He introduces his concept of the “SNOOT,” someone who pays close attention to words and language. Once his credentials are established—and they are beyond question—he then embarks on an explanation of the battle between the prescriptivists (those supporting rule-based use) and the descriptivists (those supporting use that is merely consistent with societal norms and not primarily rule based). His explanation of the concepts and rationales advanced by these competing camps is thoughtful, precise, and presented clearly. DFW sees the language landscape, understands it, and is able to explain it well.

But beyond this, his work is one of persuasion. Cicero would be proud. (In fact, having read at least some Cicero, I can say that Cicero likely never approached the level of persuasion found in this piece.) Like a spectacular trial lawyer, one who is humorous, thoughtful, and engaging, DFW convinces us of the need for a kinder and gentler view of usage, one that is grounded not just in rules, but also in community and love for one’s fellow man. The ethical nature of his appeal is at first hidden, but eventually, as the authority of the essay takes hold, bared:

Progressive liberals seem incapable of stating the obvious truth: that we who are well off should be willing to share more of what we have with poor people not for the poor people’s sake but for our own: i.e., we should share what we have in order to become less narrow and frightened and lonely and self-centered people.

Whether we agree with this particular statement or not, it is clear that DFW’s essay is genuinely concerned with public virtue, including the way that we conduct the “language wars.” In short, any prescriptivist reading the essay would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved to begin searching for accommodation on some usage issues. And any descriptivist would have to have an empty head not to understand the importance of at least some fixed usage rules.

The essay on Garner’s work is stunningly beautiful, unique, and profound. But Consider the Lobster also contains nine other amusing and penetrating essays. The subjects range from the vapidity of sports autobiographies and the interesting phenomenon of a porn convention, to a see-everything tour with the 2000 McCain campaign and the manner in which “mainstream America” reacted to the 9-11 attacks on the day they occurred.

Here I stand, more than ten years after the first of these essays appeared in print, long after his works have been pronounced genius by many in the literary establishment, to tell you that this is a man of great genius. Of course, I am also not afraid to share with you my opinion that Mozart is a genius—as demonstrated by other posts on this blog—so being ten years late is not perhaps my greatest impertinence.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Belated Valentine

Because my Miele vacuum was spitting instead of sucking, I took it to the A-1 vacuum shop in my fair city. It was a bright morning with deep, fresh snow and I entered a dingy business not much changed since the 1960's. Business was good. There were scattered forests of upright vacuums here and there.

I was second at the repair desk, behind two old ladies. A tiny, vibrant woman in her 70's wearing a light blue coat stood at the counter talking to the vacuum repairman, a man of Mexican extraction, while her friend, who was accompanying her on this important errand, sat in a chair and offered support.

The tiny woman placed her 1930's Electrolux canister vacuum on the repairman's examining table. She asked his opinion about what it needed. She had always loved this vacuum and wanted to keep it. She stated its exact age: it was seventy-three years old. It was metal gray and the finish was worn. The hose--dating to before the age of plastics--was dense woven fiber, discolored and frayed. She opened one end and exposed an ancient removable filter. "I would really like to save this machine. How much would it cost to spruce it up?"

"That depends mostly on if the motor's in good shape. If the motor's in good shape a tune-up would be eighty dollars. If the motor's bad, it's not worth replacing."

Then he plugged in the vacuum and listened to the loud, high-pitched whining.

"No, you don't want to repair this, the motor's shot."

"It sounds like it always has."

"No, it's no good."

"I really can't hear any difference from what it has always sounded like."

"Well, the bearings are shot. It's not supposed to sound like that."

But like a vet explaining that the family pet had to be put down, the man continued to console her. He went to the back room to find a similar antique to show her how the motor was supposed to sound.

I thought about my shortcomings. How would this have gone if I were the repairman? Perhaps, "Look, lady, I'm the professional vacuum repairman, not you. If I say the motor's bearings are shot they're shot," or "Why do you come here if you won't listen to my opinion," or "Maybe the motor sounds like it has since your youth, but it's been worn out that long."

He was still helping her deal with the loss of this vacuum when I left.

As I exited the musty repairshop and was hit by the punishing brightness, I thought about the merits of this gentle repairman who had the heart to take time to help this aged woman deal with the loss of a vacuum that was purchased about the time of her birth and was surely a beloved reminder of her mother.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Confessions of an Opera Whore: Lucia di Lammermoor -- Artistic Nirvana

It is really quite difficult to imagine any artistic performance better or more enjoyable than the February 7, 2009 Met Opera HD broadcast of Lucia di Lammermoor. This was by far the most impressive of the productions in the last season and a half. Every aspect of every number of the opera was compelling and brilliant. Before attending this performance the thought had never crossed my mind that there might be a limit to the amount of beauty that one can comfortably absorb in an afternoon, but the cumulative weight of the gems strewn on the audience was crushing by the end. If I smoked, I would have definitely felt the need for a cigarette after being bombarded with huge runs of ethereal numbers, masterfully staged and performed. When brought to disc this will be the iconic DVD production of Lucia di Lammermoor and will not be surpassed for a long time. It may be one of the best recorded opera performances in history. The live HD Broadcast may have claim to the best opera “experience” in history.

The ballyhooed Anna Netrebko’s Lucia exceeded all expectations. One often hears of Netrebko’s great beauty, even her “sexiness,” before one hears praise of her singing or performance. From the way she is often spoken of one would think that she is the opera equivalent of another Russian Anna: Kournikova. But this performance removed any doubt that she is an impeccable, intelligent, controlled, and most gifted performer, a prima donna in the best senses of that expression. Her performance, which occurred only five months after she gave birth to her first child, was nothing short of astonishing. Her singing was ravishingly beautiful. She perhaps took no extreme risks and made few bel canto embellishments during the performance, but came through with exquisite high and sustained notes. Lucia’s first act aria “Regnava nel silenzio,” was convincingly delivered. She hit the mark during her duet with Edgardo, “Ah! Verranno a te sull’aure,” and her acting was captivating not just during the famous mad scene, but at every other time that she took the stage. Her mad scene will be difficult for anyone to surpass. Brava!

The singing in this performance was of a very high quality. Beyond Netrebko’s impressive vocal performance, each of the main parts was well sung. Polish tenor Piotr Beczala, a last-minute stand in for the ill Rolando Villazon, was vocally supreme. His strong and clear voice was a pleasure to listen to and in good form. I have recently wondered, particularly after attending Marcello Giordani’s weak performance in La Damnation de Faust, where the great Met tenors will come from. Beczala may provide the answer. His impressive stand-in performance in this soon to be iconic performance will place him in high demand. Similarly, Beczala’s countryman, baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, delivered a top-shelf vocal performance in the role of Enrico Ashton, Lucia’s wicked brother. His acting was also exceptional. Bass Ildar Abdrazakov, who sang the role of the Calvinist chaplain Raimondo, met the challenge laid down by the three main voices and was every bit as good. Colin Lee’s Arturo was wonderful too, as was Michaela Martens’ Alicia. Michael Meyer’s performance as Normanno seemed not to match the quality of the others, but his role is so minor that it could not detract from the otherwise nearly faultless performance of the rest of the cast. This cast proved that the Met has plenty of memorable voices at its disposal and that audiences can continue to expect and should demand the very best from Met vocal performances.

The use of a glass harmonica—a musical instrument invented by Benjamin Franklin that produces sounds that sound like the ringing sound made by a wine glass when a finger is drawn about its rim—was brilliant and effective. Its eerie resonances fit perfectly with the themes of specters and the afterlife.

I earlier asserted that this may have been the best opera “experience” in history. I say that after having sat on that thought for a day. This performance, like no other that I have seen in the last two seasons, showed that the experience of attending the opera live simply cannot compete with HD broadcasts. It was often obvious that the HD transmission format was increasing audience enjoyment. For instance, there is a harp solo that precedes Lucia’s first entrance. In the house one would probably not hear the harp particularly well—and one would not see Mariko Anraku Armonica performing this solo at all if one were there live, since the harp would be down in the pit. As it was, the Met cameras had tight close-ups of the exquisite fingerwork required by this piece. This greatly increased the enjoyment of this number. Then again, as Enrico rages against a reluctant Lucia during “Se tradirmi tu potrai,” he strongarms her and forces her to the floor, where she remains long enough to deliver a number of her own. One in the house would have seen a small heap on the stage. Instead, the remote audience saw Anna Netrebko from a perspective that was as if we were lying on the floor right next to her, within two feet, with our chin on the floor next to her face. Later, during the mad scene, Lucia’s actions are performed with detailed precision. The blood on the veil, the manner in which the veil is caught by the knife as Netrebko brings the knife to her own throat—the impact of these details and gestures was greatly increased by the close-ups and framing that the cameras provide. And at many points during the mad scene it was as if we were permitted to sit on a chair placed on the stage right in the middle of the action. Then again, during the two specter scenes, the first where a ghost appears during “Regnava nel silenzio,” and the other at the very end of the opera when the ghost of Lucia comes to Edgardo as he lays dying, the close-ups added great impact. The approach of a brilliant, white specter in both instances led to graceful caresses that few would be able to see from the audience. These intimate little extras greatly amplified the performance and made it clear that this new medium of camera-aided opera viewing has something on live attendance.

When records switched from mono to stereo there were those who continued to maintain that mono was the truer and superior sound. Then when compact discs were created there were those who said they could not compare to phonograph records. And now, when these HD broadcasts exist there are still no doubt those purists who will say that they cannot compare to the live experience. But I just don’t see how that can logically be the case. The purists who hold out for the superiority of live attendance are superstitious and wrong. Why would we not want to see what is going on? Why would we want to sit in the twenty-second row, instead of seemingly on stage amidst the performers?

So this is my basis for contending that this may have been the best opera “experience” in history. For these reasons, I believe the best opera “experience” must be an HD performance—and this was to me the best of the HD performances in the last season and a half.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Girded Against the Met's Charms

This blog is taking a terrible turn for the worse. It is perhaps forgivable that when the blog started last year it had no focus. It was a glorified typing drill. I wrote about hikes, flowers, and weekend peregrinations. Harmless and uninteresting. Next the blog gravitated towards a trollish discussion of classical music and made the novel point that Mozart wrote beautiful music. All this was vacuous fun. Lately, however, cloying opera boosterism has hijacked this blog. Time after time my reviews of the Met Opera's HD broadcasts have been saccharine and uncritical. Or, even if initially somewhat critical, they suddenly do a full turn at the end to conclude that the performance was nonetheless unbelievably successful.

And today I am about to leave for the Met's Lucia di Lammermoor, with Anna Netrebko singing Lucia. I am like the whore applying lipstick or the gigolo checking his hair in the mirror on a Saturday night. I've been easy each of the last fifteen nights out, but wouldn't it be nice to prove that I'm hard to get just this one time? I really want to prove that I'm not an "easy date." But can I resist the charms of Netrebko and the Met?

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Orfeo ed Euridice: Balm for Hard Times


Despite the Jeremiahs trumpeting the world’s imminent demise, those attending the January 24, 2009 Metropolitan Opera HD Broadcast of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice could not help being uplifted by a performance that showed us all why we have reasons to feel good. This production and performance were exceptional entertainment and so, on the most basic level, provided escape from the travails of life. But beyond simple escapism, the uniform high quality of every aspect of the opera—dance, costume, music and staging—and the obvious devotion of the scores of people involved in the performance and the creation of the work, gave even greater cause for optimism: mankind has groups of people that lavish great attention and care on projects of beauty and imagination.

When the Metropolitan Opera announced its scheduled broadcasts for this season I considered Orfeo ed Euridice an outlier. The operas by Rossini, Puccini, Bellini, Berlioz, Donizetti and Strauss were all likely home runs. But Orfeo, dating to 1762, is the earliest of the scheduled operas this year. Well, no worries. It is a pre-Mozartian gem and is one of the earliest operas in the ordinary repertoire of most companies. Christoph Willibald Gluck wrote over thirty operas and lived to within four years of Mozart’s death. This opera, performed in its original Italian version, dates to 1762. Its music obviously owes much to the early musical traditions of Vienna. Some of the numbers of this through-composed opera bear strong resemblance to the music of Mozart. The famous aria “Che farò senza Euridice,” the choral and orchestral tour de force “Chi mai dell’Erebo,” and the orchestral piece “Ballo delle furie,” are among the numbers that demonstrate that the musical writing in this opera is of the very highest caliber. This is a luscious and beautiful work.

Stephanie Blythe’s performance in the lead as Orfeo was stunning. This was one of those rare occasions where early in the performance one realizes that there will be perfection throughout. The role, originally written for a castrato and hence a “pants” role, is demanding. Orfeo sings in almost every vocal number of the opera. Blythe’s bright and clear mezzo voice never erred. From her plaintive repeated cries of “Euridice” in her opening number, through her stunning “Che farò senza Euridice,” her live performance surpassed studio recordings made by some of opera’s greats. Perfection warrants little comment, so not much more can be added with respect to Blythe’s amazing performance.

Apart from Orfeo, the opera has only two other singing parts: Amor (Cupid) and Euridice. The entrance of Cupid was dramatic. Heidi Grant Murphy, a passable Amor, was lowered from the full height of the Met stage to a point a few inches off the ground, where she appeared to whisper in Orfeo’s ear. After telling Orfeo that he can gain back Euridice, Amor then sings the aria “Gli sguardi trattieni,” which Murphy sang well, but not with solidity. Murphy interjected an air of humor throughout, which was in part aided by her unusual costume: white tennis shoes, khakis, a pink golf shirt sprinkled with some sequins, and fakey little wings. Her performance was good, but was eclipsed by that of Blythe. Euridice was played by the stunning Danielle de Niese, who sang her few numbers beautifully.

Tiered staging is now de rigueur at the Met. The wonderful, gifted Met chorus appeared in a three-tiered semicircle at the back of the stage. Approximately 90 members of the chorus were included and each was dressed in an Isaac Mizrahi-designed costume of a different historical figure, including such notables as Lincoln, Moses, Maria Callas, Stalin, Jimi Hendrix, Susan Sontag, and even Gluck himself. The costumes worn by this chorus of the dead were visually interesting even from a distance.

Operas written in the 1700’s often respected the French tradition of including several dance interludes. Mark Morris’ contemporary dance sequences were pleasing and well fit the mood of the opera. There was no pretence as to any particular date or age for the costumes or the staging, so neither the contemporary nature of the dance nor the fact that the dancers were dressed in such getup as printed T-shirts detracted from the enjoyment of the performance.

That such care was lavished on the performance of an opera that is nearly 250 years old was touching. The composer, the librettist, the orchestra, the vocal soloists, the chorus, the costume designers, the set designers, the dancers—all came together in perfect harmony to hold forth for the audience’s consideration an ancient story: the story of Orpheus’ trip to the underworld to reclaim his love, only to lose her when he turns around to gaze upon her, killing her instantly. But in this version of the story Orpheus is given another chance. Even after Euridice dies, history’s dead take pity on him and revive Euridice a second time. The opera thus ends on a note of hope: "Trionfi Amore, e il mondo intero serva all’impero della beltà." (May love triumph, and let the whole world be in thrall to beauty’s empire.) The escape to the opera was not the only gift of this afternoon; more precious was the lesson that through devotion to excellence and the pursuit of the things we love we can accomplish beautiful and important works.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

A List: Recommendations for Those Just Getting Interested in Classical Music

I created this list some time ago as a list of recordings that might be recommended to someone who approaches you and asks how to venture into the waters of classical music. It is intended to be a list that offers a variety of classical genres: opera, symphonies, keyboard, violin concerto, solo cello, piano concerto, and oratorio. Though it is mostly mainstream with respect to the represented composers, it reflects a variety of interesting sounds.

Because the list is intended for someone who is starting to explore classical music, many of the recordings are budget issues. If you have thoughts on the list or would like to pipe in with your own, please do!

List-making is always a personal, subjective, and possibly silly thing to do, but I would be interested in others' lists.

1. Mozart: The Magic Flute; Sir Colin Davis, conductor, Staatskapelle Dresden, orchestra; Rundfunkchor Leipzig, choir; Moll, Schreier, Price, Serra, Melbye, Venuti; Philips Duo, recorded in 1985, released on CD in 1994.

2. Beethoven: Symphonies No. 5 and 7, Carlos Kleiber, Wiener Philharmoniker; Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1975 and 1976, released on CD in 1996.

3. Bach: Keyboard Pieces, Toccata, BWV 911; Partita BWV 826; English Suite No. 2, BWV 807; Argerich; Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1980, released on CD in 2000.

4. Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D; Brahms: Violin Concerto in D; Jascha Heifetz; Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra; RCA, recorded in 1957, released on SACD in 2005.

5. Panorama—Edvard Grieg, two discs of various piano and orchestral works; Deutsche Grammophon Panorama, recorded on various dates, released on CD in 2000.

6. Bach: Six Unaccompanied Suites for Cello; Yo-Yo Ma; Sony, recorded in 1983, released on CD in 1990.

7. Mozart: The Great Piano Concertos, Vol. I—Brendel; Sir Neville Mariner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; Philips Duo, recorded in 1972-82, released on CD in 1994.

8. Handel: The Messiah; Sir Colin Davis, London Philharmonic Orchestra; Philips Duo, recorded in 1966, released on CD in 1994.

9. Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 and Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1; Martha Argerich, Philips, recorded 1982 and 1980, released on CD in 1995.

10. Bach: The Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-4 (separate disc one); and Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 5-6 and Orchestral Suite No. 1 (separate disc two), Neville Marriner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; EMI, recorded in 1985, released on CD in 2004.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

La Rondine: Where Have You Been?

Puccini is a champion of popular opera. While meaning no disrespect to Verdi, Mozart or Rossini, Puccini holds the top of the popular opera charts. According to the Opera America ranking of the 20 most-performed operas, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and La Bohème are the first and second most frequently performed operas in the United States. Tosca and Turnadot then come in at numbers eight and twelve. Together these four Puccini operas have been performed at the Met thousands of times. But where has La Rondine been? Nowhere to be found. Until this season it had not been performed at the Met since 1936. This opera, a treasure, has been hidden in plain view. Its reemergence at the Met this year and the HD Broadcast of it are wonderful gifts to Puccini fans everywhere.

The story is simple: Magda, a young woman of Paris high society, leaves her protector for a younger man, Ruggero. Magda and Ruggero then live a carefree life but must part because they run out of money and because she never disclosed her true identity. Unlike most Puccini heroines, however, she does not die—she simply returns to her protected, less romantic world.

Angela Gheorgiu, playing Marta, and her husband, Roberto Alagna, playing Ruggero, both gave excellent performances. Things seemed in doubt for a time. At the beginning of the transmission, Met Director Peter Gelb came out with a microphone. I was thinking, “Uh, oh, substitution.” But instead, he simply explained that Gheorgiu was suffering from a bad cold. Gelb’s apology was not required because her performance was stunning. The signature piece of the opera, “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta,” comes early in the first act and the audience was in suspense wondering if the ill Gheorgiu could pull it off; she did it without a hitch. And it is a spectacular aria:



Lately I have had the feeling that some of the Met’s tenors have not been quite up to snuff. Marcello Giordani’s recent performance in The Damnation of Faust seemed lacking, particularly at one key point of an important aria. Ramon Vargas does craftsman-like work, but does not excite. Alagna’s was to me the best tenor performance I have seen recently. He was singing a role that he knows well. The 1997 EMI recording of this opera that he made with Gheorgiu and the London Symphony Orchestra is certainly one of the best available. But whatever his familiarity with the work, he was in fine voice and demonstrated that he is one of the very best tenors around. It seems a bit odd watching a husband and wife perform together in lead roles, though it adds an interesting dimension.

Marta’s maid Lisette was, appropriately enough, sung by Lisette Oropesa, whose comic acting was superb. The poet Prunier was sung by Marius Brenciu, who, like Gheorgiu, hails from Romania. Both Oropresa and Brenciu were exceptional, as was Samuel Ramey’s Rambaldo.

The Met staging was pleasing in that it contained no gimmicks this time: the staging for each of the three acts was attractive, fitting and realistic. The first Act was set in Rambaldo’s mansion; the second at a Parisian nightspot, Bulliers; and the last at a villa on the Mediterranean.

Puccini’s operas connect with people in ways that are deep and unique. It is a shame that this opera has been kept out of the rotation.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Deborah Voigt: Long-Awaited Schubert Club Recital a Success

The road to a Deborah Voigt’s January 6, 2008 recital at St. Paul’s Schubert Club was not a smooth one. A planned recital in November 2005 failed when the Minnesota Orchestra, which had engaged Voigt for a concert performance of Tosca later that season, invoked a clause in its contract which gave it the right to refuse an artist permission to perform at other venues within 50 miles of downtown Minneapolis in the same season. This ungracious action forced Voigt to cancel her planned 2005 recital. This year the Schubert Club rebooked her, avoided contract pitfalls and brought her brilliant soprano voice to St. Paul’s Ordway Center for the Performing Arts for a mid-winter recital.

Voigt is one of the most gifted dramatic sopranos of the decade. In a notorious 2004 episode she was fired by the Royal Covent Garden Opera House because she could not fit into a little black dress that the lead character was supposed to wear.



Later she had gastric bypass surgery, which led to a dramatic weight loss. The story of her weight struggles was the subject of a poignant 60 Minutes profile. Then last season, her appearances as Isolde in the Met’s already snake-bit production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde—performers and their substitutes were dropping like flies—was interrupted by a bad cold, which forced her to cancel performances. It seems that there is often uncertainty as to whether her performance will actually occur as planned.

But the Ordway recital was a great success. In the first half of the program she sang in English, Italian, and German in songs by Beach, Verdi, and Strauss. Her beautiful voice projected well in the hall. She entered wearing a luxuriant, structured red dress and made occasional under-the-breath quips that got the audience laughing.

The second part of the program, songs by Respihgi, Ben Moore, and Bernstein was by far the more engaging half and one got the sense that the recital was building as the evening progressed. The pieces by New York composer Moore were quite remarkable. Very distinctive, interesting and stunningly performed. The regular program then concluded with Bernstein, ending with the West Side Story favorite “Somewhere.” The performance of Broadway show tunes by operatic sopranos is always an iffy thing, but Voigt did a marvelous job of retaining the song’s essence and beauty.

The encores were the most successful part of the program. The audience’s sustained enthusiasm was rewarded with three. The first in German (unknown to me, but including the refrain “aber dank”) and the last two well-known numbers in English, including Berlin’s sassy “I Love a Piano,” and Jerome Kern’s famous “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” “I Love a Piano” was humorously acted out, with Voigt stroking and caressing the piano and then at the end sitting down on the piano bench with the pianist and throwing out a pretty nasty keyboard riff. The last song, with its famous “Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, I gotta love one man ‘til I die” lyric was the perfect end to a pleasing recital.

Voigt’s voice seemed in fine form the entire evening and it was easy to see why she is considered one of the best dramatic sopranos in the world.

The 60 Minutes profile on Deborah Voigt is easy to find on the internet. A humorous You Tube video referencing the “little black dress” incident is found above.

Ten Recommended Classical Recordings: A Sampler for Those New to the Classical Scene

The following is a list of classical recordings that offer a variety of classical genres: opera, symphonies, keyboard, violin concerto, solo cello, piano concerto, and oratorio. Though it is mostly mainstream with respect to the represented composers, it reflects a variety of interesting sounds.

Because the list is intended for someone who is starting to explore classical music many of the recordings are now budget issues. If you have thoughts on the list or would like to pipe in with your own, please do!

1. Mozart: The Magic Flute; Sir Colin Davis, conductor, Staatskapelle Dresden, orchestra; Rundfunkchor Leipzig, choir; Moll, Schreier, Price, Serra, Melbye, Venuti; Philips Duo, recorded in 1985, released on CD in 1994.

2. Beethoven: Symphonies No. 5 and 7, Carlos Kleiber, Wiener Philharmoniker; Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1975 and 1976, released on CD in 1996.

3. Bach: Keyboard Pieces, Toccata, BWV 911; Partita BWV 826; English Suite No. 2, BWV 807; Argerich; Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1980, released on CD in 2000.

4. Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D; Brahms: Violin Concerto in D; Jascha Heifetz; Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra; RCA, recorded in 1957, released on SACD in 2005.

5. Panorama—Edvard Grieg, two discs of various piano and orchestral works; Deutsche Grammophon Panorama, recorded on various dates, released on CD in 2000.

6. Bach: Six Unaccompanied Suites for Cello; Yo-Yo Ma; Sony, recorded in 1983, released on CD in 1990.

7. Mozart: The Great Piano Concertos, Vol. I—Brendel; Sir Neville Mariner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; Philips Duo, recorded in 1972-82, released on CD in 1994.

8. Handel: The Messiah; Sir Colin Davis, London Philharmonic Orchestra; Philips Duo, recorded in 1966, released on CD in 1994.

9. Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 and Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1; Martha Argerich, Philips, recorded 1982 and 1980, released on CD in 1995.

10. Bach: The Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-4 (separate disc one); and Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 5-6 and Orchestral Suite No. 1 (separate disc two), Neville Marriner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; EMI, recorded in 1985, released on CD in 2004.