So many people I know think they don’t like opera. They have little experience of it and perhaps are intimidated by the foreign languages, the length of the performances, and the use of music for all the dialogue. Whatever the reason, they avoid anything which smacks of opera.
The 2020 New Year’s Eve Gala concert from the Metropolitan Opera of New York on Thursday should be an exception. Filmed in Augsburg, Germany, live from the neo-Baroque Parktheater (“a marvel of glass and cast-iron” which opened in 1886), it is a delightful concert appealing to opera experts and novices alike. It premiered on New Year’s Eve and is available to view by streaming until January 13th.
The setting is stunning. When most other opera houses around the world are shuttered, this performance comes from an opera house which is small, intimate, and with what appear to be windows which let in natural light. Lighting for the concert used the windows to wonderful effect. All the seats on the floor of the hall were removed, replaced by a small round stage where the performers sang, accompanied by a pianist for some songs and a small string ensemble for others. The production was conducted according to German COVID-19 requirements, shot with numerous cameras, linked to the control room in New York, and directed by Gary Halvorson, the director of the Met’s Live in HD theatre transmissions.
The Gala program includes arias, duets, and ensembles from Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment, Puccini’s La Boheme and La Rondine, Verdi’s Il Trovatore and La Traviata, and others, as well as operetta excerpts and Neapolitan songs. These are some of the most popular pieces in classical music and will be familiar to many who think they know nothing about opera. Excerpts from the concert are available on YouTube.
The performers are sopranos Angel Blue and Pretty Yende and tenors Javier Camarena and Matthew Polenzani. Blue starred as Bess in the Met’s production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which opened the 2019–20 season. She is founder of the non-profit Sylvia’s Kids Foundation, which offers scholarships to high school graduates. Yende comes from South Africa, made her debut in Latvia and has sung with most major opera companies around the world. Mexican tenor Camarena is “one of opera’s most celebrated bel canto singers.” He made his Met debut in 2011 as Count Almaviva in Il Barbiere di Siviglia. American tenor Polenzani made his debut at the Met in 1997 as Boyar Khrushchov in Boris Godunov and has sung nearly 400 performances of 40 roles at the Met since.
The women wear lavish dresses, the men tuxedos. Needless to say, their singing is superb. It was wonderful to see them perform live in such a setting, and to know that people were watching together from all over the world.
Tickets are $20 and can be purchased on the Met’s website at metopera.org. Once you have a ticket, you can watch the concert as often as you wish. The concert can be seen on a computer, mobile device, or a home entertainment system (via Chromecast or AirPlay).
The Gala Concert has been marketed as part of the Met’s fundraising campaign “to support the company and protect its future.”
To put it into context, you may be interested to know that the New Year’s Eve Gala has contributed to labour conflicts at the Met. The newsletter, Ludwig Van Toronto, on January 1, 2021, published an article by Anya Wassenberg entitled “THE SCOOP | Frictions Grow Between Met Opera, Met Orchestra And Staff After New Year’s Gala.”
The Met is the largest classical music organization in the US with about 1000 employees including musicians, stagehands, and members of the chorus. It is said that the Met has lost $154 million in revenues since the pandemic began. On Thursday, Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians complained that the Gala continued the Met strategy of outsourcing its musicians which was “artistic malpractice and unacceptable.” In December, the stagehands were locked out. The unions are concerned that employees of the Met have not been paid or supported during the pandemic, and that future contract negotiations will be affected. I had assumed that the “fundraising campaign,” which was the purpose of the MetStars series and the Gala, would have supported as many Met employees as possible. Apparently, it did not extend to the musicians, stagehands, and chorus.
Comments about the New Year’s Gala reflect the situation. Most agree that it was a splendid concert with great music and fabulous production values. Some chose to boycott the concert because of the labour issues. I have no informed opinion about the situation. The only thing I will say is that the Metropolitan Opera has led the world in making opera accessible to the masses. If making opera more popular is one of the objectives of the MetStars series, including the Gala, then it will contribute to the future of the art. That is a good thing.
As for the concert, it is absolutely exhilarating. The choice of music is diverse, demanding, delightful, and upbeat. The words reflect common operatic themes, the vagaries of human experience, and are translated in the subtitles. The performers are super-energetic and totally engaging. That they touch each other, hold hands, and hug is novel and good to see after ten months of rigid physical distancing. By the time they end the concert, singing Auld Lang Syne, they clearly are having great fun. It’s a concert which will leave you smiling as you enter the new year.
(By the way, Ludwig Van Toronto, and Ludwig Van Montreal, are websites dedicated to lovers of classical music. Their email newsletter notes that while the mainstream media is cutting back on classical music coverage, Ludwig Van is investing in it. Its motto is “If You Think Classical Music is Dead, You’re Dead Wrong!” You can choose to receive the email newsletter daily, weekly, or monthly. I had no idea that it existed and am delighted to plug into what it has to offer. Check out their website.)
Christmas 2020 has been the most wonderful opportunity to access music. It’s as if multiple choral groups and musicians decided to share their talent and creativity with the world in a common desire to rise above COVID-19 and give a gift of hope. The result has been memorable in the best possible way.
The most sublime of the music emerging this season has been Messiah/Complex from Against the Grain Theatre. Billed as “A daring reimagining of Handel’s classic featuring voices from across Canada,” it is a breath-taking rendition of the classic music in Arabic, Dene, English, French, Inuktitut, and Southern Tutchone.
Produced in cooperation with the Toronto Symphony and the Banff Centre for the Arts, the production was co-directed by Joel Ivany of Against the Grain and Reneltta Arluk, Director of Indigenous Arts at the Banff Centre. The twelve soloists and four choirs come from every province and territory. They sing in their own languages and with visuals of the entire country… amidst northern snows, by ocean waters, in the woods, on the prairies, in the heart of our largest urban cities, at work or school, beside campfires. The language has been updated and the photography is contemporary. All of the artists contributed from apart, on video. But they worked together to give Canadians and the world a seasonal gift that would lift spirits and provide hope in this difficult time. The production is a musical and visual tour de force which shows the talent, creativity, and diversity of Canadian people and the breathtaking beauty of our country.
It is a profoundly moving experience. In the few weeks since it launched, there have been 55,000 views. Viewers are wild with praise: “so beautiful and so terribly long overdue,” from New York, another writes, I am “sobbing thru the beauty of this Messiah… and saluting CANADA for leading and showing the rest of us what true Diversity and shared Joy and Beauty and Hope look and sound like and unite us across all different races, religions, cultures into what makes us most extraordinarily HUMAN.” From Nashville: “absolutely extraordinary! Leave it to Canada to bring us a performance of such unusual brilliance at the tail end of such a miserable year.” “Life-enhancing,” “transformative… I will never hear Messiah the same way again,” “not enough superlatives.” “Possibly the most uplifting thing I have seen during this whole wretched COVID time.” “Astonishingly good musically and challenging, eye opening and… beautiful.” “Like no other Messiah I’ve ever heard or seen. Stunning visuals, beautiful voices, and whole new meaning for some of the words.” You get the idea. Whatever your normal response to the usual Messiah, this is a truly memorable experience which you should not miss.
This production went public on December 13th. Streaming has now been extended to January 31st. The history of how the production came about and profiles of the soloists are readily available on YouTube. Accessing the production itself seemed slightly more difficult. The performance is free of charge and can be streamed as often as you wish. To access the performance, you register on the ticket portal of Against the Grain’s website. Select a ticket beginning ASAP; only one ticket is necessary. Once done, you can access the ticket in your account. When you open your account window, you will see the name of the production, Messiah/Complex, in red. Click that and another window will open, with the words “view livestream.” That opens the YouTube stream of the live performance. It took me a while to figure it out, but it is well worth it.
I now see that Margaret Atwood posted a Tweet with a direct link to the video on You Tube. If she can do that, I can too.
Enjoy and Happy New Year.
Feeling constrained? Without inspiration? As if the pandemic is going to go on forever? To help lift any malaise, check out the “Met Stars Live in Concert” series from the New York Metropolitan Opera. It will feature twelve live concerts performed by Met stars from around the world, singing in striking venues close to where they live. If the first concert is any indication, this series will live up its promise of “the intimacy of an at home concert with the production values of the Met’s HD video series.”
The first concert was last Saturday with tenor Jonas Kaufmann from the Polling Abbey near Munich in Bavaria. Accompanied by pianist Helmut Deutsch, he sang twelve of what are said to be the most difficult and significant tenor arias from the Italian and French opera repertoire. Selections included “Nessun dorma” from Turandot, “E lucevan le stelle” from Tosca, “Ah! lève-toi, soleil” from Roméo et Juliette, and “La fleur que tu m’avais jetée” from Carmen, and others.
Critics have called the concert “splendid,” “mesmerizing,” “a jewel of a program” with “high production values,” “video as good as a movie theatre, sound… probably better.” Between sets, the concert featured video excerpts of his operatic roles with the Met over several years and also with the Salzburg Easter Festival.
A concert ticket at $20.00 buys digital access to the original concert and access to the video of the concert to stream at leisure for twelve days thereafter. I loved the concert and seeing the abbey, and have enjoyed re-listening to the concert this week.
The concerts are scheduled every second week from July 18th to December l9th. Stars will appear from Vienna, Malta, Switzerland, France, Berlin, Wales, Oslo, Barcelona, and the United States. You can find the schedule of stars in recital at Met Stars Live in Concert, where tickets are available for purchase. Once you have your ticket, you will be sent a link to the original concert which you can then use for repeat streaming.
The next concert on August 1st is American soprano Renée Fleming singing from the music salon at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC. Her program will include: “Endless pleasure, endless love” from Handel’s Semele, “Baïlèro” by Joseph Canteloube, “Ah! Je ris de me voir” from Gounod’s Faust, “Da geht er hin” from R. Stauss’s Der Rosenkavalier and other arias by Korngold, Cilea, Puccini and Harold Arlen. She has appeared with leading opera companies and orchestras around the world, and is the recipient of numerous national and international honours. Since winning the l988 Met’s National Council Audition, she has given more than 250 performances in 22 roles with the company. She made her Broadway debut in 2015 and, in 2018, was nominated for a Tony Award for her role of Nettie Fowler in Carousel. Her concert promises to be sublime.
Don’t forget that the Metropolitan Opera is still streaming their repertoire of HD opera videos, free of charge, every day. The list of operas released each week is published on their webpage the previous Friday. Each opera video is released at 7:30 p.m. EDT and available for viewing until 6:30 EDT the next day. Last weekend was Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and Puccini’s La Bohème.
We hear music in our souls, and our spirits soar up like seagulls (I haven’t seen any eagles recently). Keeping cozy at home, which apparently is a national trait of Danes (which I claim as part of my ancestry through my maternal grandfather), I have a chance to listen to and learn about music. So I am discovering.
It is embarrassing to admit that only recently have I come to know the vast resources available on YouTube. How could I have missed it? My grandson has used YouTube for years. I gather that now there is even a YouTubeKids for music, videos, games, and all sorts of learning activities specially curated for children and youth.
Lori asks, “Why sleep, when there is so much to listen to on YouTube?” Where have I been all this time? There is even YouTubePremium, which is free for thirty days and gives ad-free performances even when your computer is off-line. And AppleMusic. And all those other streaming services which I am just beginning to appreciate. Wedded as I was (note the tense) to compact discs and the music I have downloaded to iTunes, I have never before taken the time to explore more modern means to access music. That was then; this is now.
The pandemic seems to have stimulated a cornucopia of creative activity waiting for us to share. I have already mentioned free access to the New York Metropolitan Opera videos which I gather can be converted into a subscription at a modest cost.
The Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra’s Ode to Joy, “From Us to You,” performed March 20, 2020 on YouTube was among the first. To date, over 2.6 million people have heard their rendition. A couple of days later, musicians from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra performed Appalachian Spring using the same “playing together although apart” modern technology. If you have not yet heard these, check them out.
I have since discovered that Canada’s 125-year-old Mendelssohn Choir has fifteen of its concerts since 2014 available as webcasts on its Vimeo/Livestream webpage. You can also visit their history blog.
Even Toronto Consort, Toronto’s outstanding early music ensemble which I have written about before, has preview tracks of its most recent compact disk “The Way of the Pilgrim: Medieval Songs of Travel,” on its webpage. You can purchase their CDs from Marquis Music, Amazon.ca and iTunes.
I am gearing up for the “One World: Together at Home” concert tomorrow (Saturday) evening April 18, 2020. It bills itself as the largest ever “broadcast and digital performance in support of frontline healthcare workers and the WHO.” Organized in cooperation with Lady Gaga, it will feature over one hundred artists including Canada’s Céline Dion and Justin Bieber. Check out your local schedules to see it on CBC, CTV, and a host of other channels, or catch it on your computer, beginning at 2:00 p.m. EDT. Enjoy.
What an extraordinary Easter it was this year.
Apart physically, as never before, we seemed together more than ever. On Saturday, our family enjoyed a get-together by Zoom: some at home two hours north of Ottawa, others in the eastern GTA, Bill and I in Vancouver. Sunday morning, Bathurst United Church which for decades has met in the chapel at Bloor Street and Walmer Avenue in Toronto, conducted their Easter service by Zoom. Thirty-one members (a good number for this very small congregation) participated, including many old-timers like me who haven’t attended in person for years.
My brother and sister-in-law, who are Roman Catholic, attended four masses over the Easter weekend, all virtual. They could choose mass from their home church or from a dozen other Catholic churches around the city, or cathedrals around the world. My sister and her friend welcomed Easter Sunday morning by tolling the bell at the Gothic yellow wood St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Dawson City, Yukon (built in 1902).
Most sublime was to see and hear global musical icon Andrea Bocelli singing Music for Hope live on Easter Sunday in the empty Duomo di Milano. He sang at the invitation of the Cathedral and the City of Milan, accompanied only by the magnificent Cathedral organist.
His repertoire? Five of the most-beloved pieces of music in the Christian tradition: César Franck’s Panis Angelicus, Charles-François Gounod’s Ave Maria, Sancta Maria (from Cavalleria Rusticana) by Pietro Mascagni, Domine Deus by Gioachino Antonio Rossini, and John Newton’s Amazing Grace. I wept.
Streamed live on Sunday, April 12, 2020, his concert is now trending #1 on the YouTube charts, heard by over 33 million listeners in less than 48 hours. You can still hear it on YouTube. A grand thank you to Andrea Bocelli and the Italians for this incredible gift to the world. A magnificent assertion of hope and renewal in a troubled world.
You may be interested to know that the Andrea Bocelli Foundation (ABF) has started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for respirators, medical beds and other necessary medical equipment for several hard-hit northern Italian hospitals. As of today’s date, they have raised €237,638, with more coming in since the concert.
In the past, I have written about Tafelmusik’s Sing-along Messiah. Last Saturday, I shared a sing-along experience with a great choir which was totally different, but equally uplifting. On Sunday, February 23rd, the Bach Choir will perform Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana in concert at the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver. This weekend, they invited other choirs and the public at large to join their rehearsal in a sing-along run-through. It was an utterly delightful experience.
German composer Carl Orff wrote Carmina Burana in 1935-36. It is a cantata based on 24 poems from a medieval collection which covered a range of topics described in Wikipedia as “the fickleness of fortune and wealth, the ephemeral nature of life, the joy of the return of Spring, and the pleasures and perils of drinking, gluttony, gambling and lust.” Written in secular Latin, Middle High German, and Old French, it is one of the favourites of the classical music repertoire. You can hear it on YouTube. Normally sung with full orchestration, for the sing-along, Stephen Smith, rehearsal accompanist for the choir, played the piano.
Cathrie Yuen, Assistant Conductor of the choir, led the singing. She started with a series of exercises, to get the body in shape and the voice ready for the demanding music which followed. Then down to the serious business of singing “Oh Fortuna” and the twenty-four other movements that make up the cantata. After most major movements, Cathrie had suggestions for improvements and the group repeated the singing as she wanted it done. Needless to say, most people knew the music well.
My friend and I chose to sing alto and had never seen the score before. Of course, we had never sung it before. We felt good if we were able to find in the score where the rest were actually singing. It was great fun. And, sitting in the choir, the music was wonderful.
The Vancouver Bach Choir is in its 89th season and is one of the largest symphonic choirs in Canada. Under the direction of Leslie Dala, it performs traditional and new choral works, for a local, national and international audience. Since 1984, it has also built a multi-tiered children’s program that provides choral training to over 350 singers from kindergarten to post-secondary school. More recently, the Sarabande Chamber Choir has emerged for graduates of the youth program, current Vancouver Bach Youth Choir members, and outside applicants.
Donations from the Singable Saturday event were given to the Vancouver Adapted Music Society. Sam Sullivan and Dave Symington, two Vancouver musicians who became disabled as a result of sports injuries, co-founded that organization in 1988. The Society has specialized adaptive equipment which allows people of all levels of disability to learn to play the guitar, bass, keyboards, and to study singing. It also has a fully-accessible studio, which enables disabled musicians to learn studio techniques, record their music, and perform at Vancouver-area gigs. A worthy recipient of a most inspiring event.