Two moments

1. I’m driving from New York out to my country place, late last night. I’m listening to sports radio. A commercial comes up; I don’t want it yapping at me. I flip over to NPR, aka WNYC, New York’s public radio station, and often a good place to hear surprising music. I just miss the announcement of the music coming up, but when the music starts, I’m drawn right in. A woman with a strong, high voice — nice edge on it — is singing something repetitive, with a good sharp beat. But really not repetitive; that’s an illusion created, I think, because the tune keeps boxing itself in before it gets very far, and then keeps starting over again. Interesting.

For a while I think this must be one of those new-music composers (the kind who don’t work in the classical concert hall) who writes what in any non-classical context would be called pop songs, though they’re rough and individual. I’m judgmental enough to think the boxy tune is evidence of this; maybe a real pop person would write a tune that flew a little further. But then something starts skittering around in the instrumental mix, and I get lost listening to it. And before I understand exactly what’s been happening to me, I find I’m drawn into the entire thing, that it goes on longer and does far more than I’d expected it to, and that I’d follow it anywhere.

Turns out it was Bjork, singing one of the last songs in her recent NYC concert. Shame on me — if I listened to her more, of course I’d have recognized her voice. Shame on me double — if I’d listened carefully to her unstable new album, Volta, (unstable in all the best ways) instead of leaving it on in the background, I’d have recognized what I just heard as one of its tracks. But I loved that music. It was gripping, original. I would have followed it anywhere.


2. I’m flipping channels after dinner this evening, watching twilight fall outside, listening to a storm slowly brew, wondering if the three wild kittens I’ve been spotting on our property will show their little faces. I flip to PBS, and the overture to The Barber of Seville is just starting. This, I realize, is a telecast (or retelecast) of the Met’s new production, as originally streamed to movie theaters. I’d vaguely wanted to see it, to find out how theatrical the new staging might be.

But quickly I hit a snag. I know The Barber of Seville all too well, from recordings and live performances, and I didn’t want to hear it this evening. It’s lots of fun, and in fact I just adore bel canto opera, but as I said, I know it pretty thoroughly, and it holds no mysteries for me. So — really, truly, and with no prejudice against its quality — I didn’t want to hear it. This is a danger, obviously (or in a sane world it would be), that’s going to strike when the core operatic repertory has so few pieces in it.

Nor was I encouraged by what I heard. The orchestra sounded neat and mildly crisp. Closeups showed that the players are notably young. That got me thinking about the paradox in classical music today, the aging audience vs. the youthening (so shoot me; I made up a word) of major orchestras. Then came the second theme of the overture, the oboe solo, and the tempo slipped a fraction. Bad.Careless. The conductor’s fault. The camera wandered over to him, and I thought I saw what the problem was. He makes all sorts of graceful motions to encourage little string flourishes, but he doesn’t keep an absolutely steady beat.

So why do I want to watch this? The Mets had just gone ahead of the San Francisco Giants. I’d rather go back to the game. So I do. But then there’s a commercial. I switch back to PBS, thinking that by now the curtain must have risen, and I can watch the staging, and hear Juan Diego Florez sing his first-scene aria.

But again I’m discouraged. The staging isn’t bad, exactly. But it’s all too predictable, the count’s servant Fiorello asking everybody to be quiet, and everybody not quite doing that. “Quiet!”

Something falls. Ba-ding. Been there, done that. And in the middle of all these mild contrivances, the baritone who sings Fiorello isn’t singing quietly, and as far as I can tell, isn’t even trying to. Been there, done that, too. Opera! The art where sometimes they don’t even try.

Then Florez comes in. Through the audience, which did wake me up a little. He gets up on stage via a ramp built over the orchestra pit. It’s a nice touch, which I’d read about. But it really works. And of course he’s a real singer, in the sense of “singer” that includes Frankie Laine and Frank Sinatra, though not many other opera figures. Or at least he could be. I really think he’s got it all — voice, feeling, attitude, expression. Except he’s so damn careful! It’s the classical music curse. The first thing you’re taught to do is obey the rules. Don’t go too far. Respect what the composer wrote. Yadda yadda yadda, until you’ve got about three square feet in your 2500 square foot musical home for your own personality.

In this aria (“Ecco ridente”), he might begin by doing the kind of ornamentation Rossini would have expected to hear. I teach this each year to my Juilliard class on the future of classical music. I show them the Barber score Rossini wrote, and then two sets of ornaments for this aria, as published by Manuel Garcia, Jr., a famous 19th century voice teacher who also just happened to be the son of the man who created the role Florez is singing tonight.

I also play three performances of the aria for my class. First a modern one, strictly by the book. Then one by Tito Schipa, from 1916 (if I remember right; I don’t have it with me), nicely ornamented. And then one by Fernando de Lucia, recorded I think in 1904, just full of ornaments and all kinds of other personal touches, though the Manuel Garcia ornaments go even further. It’s a kind of musical archeology, unearthing history, one layer at a time, always going deeper. Too bad Florez (and probably the conductor, and the coaches at the Met) don’t know all this, or else think it’s somehow not respectable. Florez needs to be unleashed. He might start, at least in this role, by doing what the composer would have wanted – -and what the style of the composer’s time demanded. He should go to town with the music, in a really personal way. (Just like Dorothy Love Coates, a classic gospel singer I’m listening to as I write this, goes to town with every note she sings.)

I went back to the ballgame. There was nothing here to interest me. How could I recommend this emptiness to any Bjork fan? (Including me.)

You can see the Manuel Garcia ornaments by downloading a PDF file here:

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  1. says

    Again,you are with

    all due respect,just setting up so many

    straw men when you

    criticize Florez for

    his alleged lack of

    interpretive flair;I saw

    the telecast and enjoyed

    it very much.The overall spirit of the performance

    was marvelous;why nitpick? You criticize

    today’s classical musicians for being too

    literal,but I wish I had a dollar for every review in which they

    were mercilessly lambasted for the liberties they took with

    the music.This just shows

    the hypocritical double

    standard by which today’s classical critics

    judge today’s musicians.

    They lambaste today’s classical musicians for

    doing the very things that they would have

    praised performers of

    the past.They insist on

    having it both ways.

  2. Rafael de Acha says

    Hello, Greg! Very interesting posting and one with which I by and large agree. There are few Rossini tenors singing these days that approach the terrific individuality of the two tenors you mention – Schipa being the more recorded and hence accessible of the two. De Lucia too is fascinating. Your posting prompted me to ‘google” him and I was blown away by the man’s musicality, his vocal technique, and the breadth of his repertory: Almaviva, Lohengrin (I’m not joking!) and Chenier, among others…There are a couple of sites where you can hear snippets of arie sung by him, including Ecco Ridente, with plenty of off-beat ornaments. You may also want to check out Alessandro Bonci…

    But, back to the main subject… Juan Diego Florez is terrific, and, although I have not heard him in person, I immensely admire his vocalism. But he is rare among today’s new crop of singers, where you get a lot of cookie-cutter vocalism: correct, technically impeccable, yet often boring. I recently heard a broadcast of an important singing competition where singer after singer came and went without making the kind of impression a true original makes. Compare that to the old Singer of the World competition, available in VHS and DVD, where you can get to hear the young Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the yet-to-be-discovered Bryn Terfel, and a very young Karita Mattila. In each case one immediately senses one is in the presence of a true original.

    The only assertions you make with which I can not agree are those regarding Bjork. I’ve never been able to get past the swan costume. Or was it a duck?

  3. says

    Greg, what do you mean by “careful” when you talk about Florez? I only use that word when I think the singer is singing without confidence. I have not seen this broadcast, but I’ve heard Florez on record and he sounds both confident and full of bravura.

    I would also ask who is responsible for the lack of ornamentation: Florez or the conductor and the coaches at the Met.

    Lastly, about singing softly: this music wasn’t written for a 4200 seat house, and are you sure the microphone setup isn’t responsible for some of what you heard? The producers have some effect on how the sound comes across. Sieglinde (Sieglinde’s Diaries) reported that Netrebko fudged a lot of fioriture in the house that sound much better in the telecast.

    Florez has a certain small amount of bravura, that’s for sure. He also has more than most opera singers. Real bravura is rare on the opera stage these days.

    And if you compare Florez to jazz singers, pop singers, gospel singers — then his bravura just about disappears. And I do think that’s a fair comparison, especially because opera singers of the past _could_ be compared to singers in those other genres.

    So that’s my bottom line. Compare Florez to other opera singers, and he’s something of a breath of fresh air. Compare him to singers in the nonclassical music I listen to, and he barely rates, except of course with regard to technique. Is this a fair comparison? Well, why not? Especially when you read what Rossini performances were like in Rossini’s time. Unabashed, uninhibited, with the audience screaming and — if you believe some of the anecdotes — even fainting or otherwise getting overcome (specifically in a duet from “Armida,” and in the prayer from “Mosé.” It’s clear (to me, anyway) from 19th century music criticism that the goal of most singers was to make an impression on stage, in some cases by any means necessary.

    Now cut to the 1980s, when I was active in the opera world. The Met did Falstaff, with Giuseppe Taddei in the title role. He was remarkably old, a survivor from another age. I talked to some young American singers in the cast, and they were horrified at Taddei, and also at Fiorenza Cossotto, who sang Quickly. ‘They upstage us!” these singers whined. To which the only answer would be: “Well, upstage them back! That’s what they’d expect you to do.”

    I don’t know, Lisa, if you ever looked at the Gino Bechi “Toreador Song” that’s on YouTube. I talked about it here once. There’s an example of an opera singer with gigantic bravura — only one example of many, from past eras, but quite an unmistakable one.

    As for who decides on ornaments, the entire situation is odd, though unfortunately understandable. There’s no musicological doubt at all about how singers ornamented in the 18th and 19th centuries. They did it a lot more — vastly a lot more — than we ever hear in performances today. In other aspects of music, musicological knowledge is scrupulously followed. But not in singing! The problem, I think, is that singers were required to be quite uninhibited, in their treatment of the written text. But in our classical music world today, fidelity to the composer’s intentions is the highest good. So musicology that requires that highest good to be dethroned gets largely ignored.

    The results, to anyone who’s studied this stuff in any detail, are sad and funny. The Met does a Rossini opera, and may well trumpet, in the program book, its fidelity to the latest critical edition of the orchestra score. While meanwhile the singers are singing in a way that any knowledgeable musicologist would have to say was entirely incorrect.

  4. Dave Meckler says

    When you have heard the Bjork piece as many times as you have heard the Rossini, then it might be more fair to compare. Beyond the issue of jaded ears, you are comparing a voice intended to be heard live in a big hall v. a voice developed for the idiom of electronic intimacy. As lovely as recorded classical music can be, it rarely has the immediate sonic engagement of well-produced pop designed for loudspeakers.

    But we don’t — at least in my experience in the music world — hear Bjork as much as we hear Rossini. I spent several years working fulltime in pop, and one reason it was such a welcome break from classical music is that I didn’t have to hear the same things over and over again. I’m not saying that doesn’t happen in pop. Can anyone say “oldies radio station”? The supermarket I shop in plays ’50s hits so implacably that I’m starting to hope I never hear any of them again. But when I worked in pop music as a critical, informed professional, I never had to hear the same stuff over and over, as I’ve had to in my many years as a critical, informed classical music professional.

    One other difference: In classical music, I’m supposed to be delighted that the Met has a new production of “Barber of Seville.” To loudly say, ‘enough, already” is something that’s only just now beginning to happen. Whereas in the pop world, whenever we’d talk about how often “Stairway to Heaven” was played on classic rock stations, we’d all roll our eyes. A healthier outlook, I think.

    As for sound, I haven’t had the experience you describe. I can do from wonderful, imaginative pop production right into a classical concert, and if the classical playing is full of life and meaning, I’ll respond right away;

  5. aem says

    Old enough to celebrate 40 years of Pepper, about two weeks ago, I felt too busy to go see her concert as I had planned. At the last minute, I went on youtube, pulled up one of her new videos so that I could read the comments. I hoped for mean reviews. All said that she was the best at recent festivals. So I put my work aside. I am so grateful for the posts of others.

    She was fabulous. Absolutely mesmerizing. She was as they said even better in concert. There is no explaining where it comes from.

    Thanks for your blog.

  6. alison ames says

    greg – you shoulda stayed for the FAB rosina!

    hope your leg’s better



    Thanks, Alison. I’m walking, not all that easily, but I’m walking.

    I’ve heard good things about that Rosina. But here’s something about opera on TV, aka emerging into the non-opera world. I can make this choice, decide to stay with a show I’m not loving because I know another singer’s coming on later, and might be good. But how does a member of the public at large know this? If opera wants a place in the real world, it has to play by real-world rules, and one of those on TV would have to be: Make something happen in the first few minutes (and regularly thereafter), otherwise you’ll lose your audience.

  7. Angela Han says

    Your comments about Bjork beg the question: why is she so much more popular than the new-music composers who are put in the ‘classical’ category? I don’t know how many records she actually sells (I’m sure it’s a lot), but she does generate a fanatical, almost cult-like following, especially among people in my demographic. How many composers today can you think of that have that same effect? Why not? Her musical influences are grounded in contemporary classical music, but she is never categorized in that way – check out her interview with Meredith Monk at to hear her talk about some of these influences.

    Hi, Angie. Very good question. Thanks for asking it. You’ve inspired me to come up with two possible answers. Or three. First, Bjork is really, really good. Sometimes the answers to complex questions are as simple as that.

    But then how did anyone hear Bjork in the first place, to know how good she was? So that’s my second answer. She’s in the pop bins in the record store, which immediately means more people are looking in her direction. And she started with the Sugarcubes, a band with no particular art leanings, so that, too, put her in the pop arena.

    My third answer would be about the many overlaps between new classical music and a lot of new rock, which have been talked about a lot, and which were unmistable this past weekend at the Bang on a Can marathon in New York, a 26-hour new music event that included some alternative rock.

    Both genres speak a similar musical language. But that language has many dialects. And the rock bands are more likely to speak the dialects in which there’s a clear, propulsive beat, relatively simple chords, and at least vaguely songlike melodies. i’m not saying there aren’t bands that avoid these things, or that these things aren’t also found in a lot of current new music. But on the pop side of this non-fence, the music tends to be a little more accessible, which then becomes one more suggestion about why Bjork has a bigger audience than composers who might write music without much beat or melody, however similar to Bjork their sound might be at any given moment.

  8. Rafael de Acha says

    Hello Greg.

    There were two “tiers”, in the cast of Falstaff at the Met in 1985. The first comprised the youngish singers (20’s, 30’s, early 40’s) – Adriana Maliponte, Mariella Devia, Gail Dubinbaum, Dalmacio Gonzalez, Brent Ellis, Anthony Laciura. There was a second and older tier: Ara Berberian (Pistol) and Charles Anthony (Dr. Cajus) -then already in their 50’s (and with years of experience under their belts.) Both groups had been with the production for a while, I would assume, including, of course, Cossotto.

    This was a typical Met situation, especially back in those days, in which a major cast replacement – Giuseppe Taddei, in this case – would get a couple of stage rehearsals with a house “traffic cop” stage director (Bodo Igesz) who would replicate as best he could the production’s director’s (Franco Zeffirelli) staging. I suspect that very likely – and I speak from personal experience as a member of the house staging staff at City Opera in the mid-70’s and then a free-lance opera director – this hapless lot got together as a cast for the first time when the curtain went up that night.

    My point then is that this sort of situation – still perpetrated in opera all over the world – is conducive to the “each man for himself-save your own butt” mentality which would cause a whiny singer to voice to you back then that Taddei and Cossotto were staging him/her. Taddei was a living legend, as was Gobbi before him: a great singing actor. You are indeed right in wanting to tell the complainer(s) to “get a life” and upstage right back. Great moments of theatre often happen due to that kind of ‘frisson’ between actors. Just look at the late and great Italo Tajo steal the show as Alcindoro in La Boheme or the Sacristano in Tosca. It’s all on VHS and DVD.

    I saw the legendary Taddei on stage in the role of Falstaff in the Karajan production in the Salzburg Festival in 1982. In the cast: Raina Kavaibanska, Christa Ludwig, Rolando Panerai, Francisco Araiza, and a couple of awesome character tenors: Piero di Palma and Heinz Zednik. I don’t remember anyone appearing to upstage anyone. The production is available on VHS and the ensemble acting – as well as the singing – are world class.

    The late Russian bass Evgeny Nesterenko’s Boris Godunov is available on VHS. He has a sublime moment of acting – one of many – in the final scene, at the point where the aged monk Pimen is delivering a lengthy narrative that climaxes with the mention of the news about the false Dmitri’s claims on the throne of Russia. The Pimen is clearly downstage of Boris, who sits tensely on his throne. As the narrative of Pimen’s builds up, Nesterenko simply reacts to the words with a series of minimal movements of his right hand, and a few – very few and subtle – changes of eye focus. The text and music of the excellent Pimen are on first plane, but one’s eyes repeatedly go back to Nesterenko’s start of his final death scene. Is this upstaging? No. This is what great ensemble acting is all about.

  9. Rafael de Acha says

    Oh, and on the subject of ornamentation… In my experience, all the good singers invent their own. Marylin Horne did, even back in the days of Henry Lewis. I would be inclined to believe that when an international star such as Juan Diego Florez, sings Ecco Ridente, the fioriture are the same in New York, Paris, or London.

    the fioriture were also much the same from performance to performance in the 19th century. Ideally, singers would improvise their ornaments (there’s a fabulous passage in Stendhal’s biography of Rossini about how that ought to work), but in practice they’d figure them out, and always sing them the same way.

    Now, though, ornaments are usually written by schoars and coaches. I know someone who worked a lot with Joan Sutherland, and wrote some of her ornaments (her husband wrote others). He also worked with other major singers. Singers will of course sign off on what they’re going to sing. They’re not going to accept ornaments they don’t like, and the conductor of any particular production is going to have a lot of say in what’s done (except of course with the top opera stars, who outrank any conductor).

    Still, ornaments now are generally written for singers, and the singers learn them as if they were part of the written score. Which means they sing them with less spontaneity. And, of course, the ornaments are very tame compared to ornaments in the 19th century. In fact, “ornament” is the wrong word to describe what went on. Singers didn’t simply elaborate on the vocal lines the composers wrote. They’d normally rewrite the music, to make it more suitable for their particular voice.