Archive for the ‘Opera’ Category

Wonderful surprises, even on reality TV

September 19, 2007

We saw Ratatouille again last weekend at the little $3 movie theater in our neighborhood. It was just as charming the second time around and all the food details just as dazzling. And Marion and I were both struck just as much by its core message: Anyone can aspire to greatness. Greatness can come from anywhere. A powerful message about expectations, of ourselves and of others.

That message was driven home again this week when my coworker Matt introduced me to Paul Potts. Well, introduced is one way to put it—another way to put it is Matt barged into my office and insisted I look at a YouTube video. I’ve done the same to him, so I’m not complaining. Especially not after watching Mr. Potts.

Paul Potts is a thirysomething mobile phone salesman from Cardiff, Wales. He’s a shy, unassuming man, a bit on the pudgy side with bad teeth, even by English standards. So imagine the surprise [with more than a slight undercurrent of dismay, I’m guessing] when he told the judges on Britain’s Got Talent that he planned to sing opera.

I don’t watch reality TV, but I understand how much of it works—it’s hard to escape when it passes for news on morning news programs. I’m sure the judges and the audience expected this to be one of those comic relief moments that they all secretly crave: The earnest salesman in a bad suit falls flat on his face.

Instead, this happened. This first video was Potts’ first appearance on the program. Watch the judges and the audience reaction shots. And watch the contestant’s own reaction later backstage—so touching. Whatever your thoughts on opera, watch this. It will make you feel very good.

After that wonderful moment, I had to see more. And YouTube was only too happy to comply, with more than two dozen videos. Next is his final appearance on Britain’s Got Talent. The judges are effusive in their praise, even the famously snarky Simon Cowell. And Paul Potts deserves every bit of it. He has since appeared on the Today Show in New York and is making his first recording back in Britain.

Anyone can aspire to greatness. And greatness can indeed come from anywhere. Thank you for reminding us, Mr. Potts.

Sad days for opera and punk music

September 12, 2007

Legendary tenor Luciano Pavarotti died last week. The New York Times called him “the great male operatic voice of his generation” in their thoughtful obituary. Quite simply, he set the standard for male operatic singers with his clear, ringing voice—his nickname was “King of the High Cs.”

More than that, though, he is credited with bringing opera to the masses, as some have put it. I think more accurately, he made many, many people who might not have otherwise, care about opera.

Partly he did this with a winning personality and natural charm. Partly he did it because he felt it was important to do so. Not everyone approved of how he went about it, least of all music critics. In the 1980s he began his Three Tenors projects with fellow tenors Plácido Domingo and José Carreras, a wildly successful franchise that sold millions of recordings. Later, he performed with a bewildering array of rock and pop stars—Jon Bon Jovi, Lou Reed, the Spice Girls, Barry White, Celine Dion and even the Godfather of Soul himself, James Brown. It didn’t matter to critics that many of these rock performances were charity concerts—he was still seen as cheapening his talents. Of course, his rock starlike fame also brought tabloid journalists out, with tales of missed concerts, his ongoing weight loss struggles and his dietary extremes when he failed.

Many wrote him off with the kind of dismissal that the apparent “wasting” of such a great talent often inspires. I’m afraid I bought into it—well, as much as I paid attention to opera at the time.

Thinking about it now, I realize that Pavarotti’s rock star adventures and popularity were key to his bringing so many unlikely candidates to opera. He made opera approachable, made it likable, by being that himself.

Ultimately, though, it comes down to that amazing, singular voice. Without that, nothing else would have come together. As I said, by the time I got around to embracing opera [thanks largely to following Marion’s lead], I had already dismissed Pavarotti as someone who had pissed away a considerable gift. Imagine, then, how humbled I was to hear the incredible recordings that have filled the airwaves since his death. Currently on his website is a quote of his, both in Italian and English: “I think a life in music is a life beautifully spent and this is what I have devoted my life to.” It was a life beautifully spent indeed.



The music world lost another great recently, although this passing occurred with much less fanfare. Hilly Kristal, the founder and owner of the legendary New York Bowery punk rock venue CBGB, died August 28 of complications of lung cancer. He was 75.

He started the club in 1973 as a country, bluegrass and blues club called CBGB & OMFUG—“Country, Bluegrass and Blues” and “Other Music For Uplifting Gourmandisers.” The name stuck but the music format didn’t. Instead, it became the birthplace and epicenter of the mid-1970s punk movement. The band Television persuaded Kristal to let them play the club and thus became the first rock band to do so. CBGB went on to serve as a launching pad for the Ramones, Patti Smith, Blondie, the Talking Heads and so many others.

Kristal was a folk music fan at heart and pretended not to care for some of the bands he booked, but in the New York Times’ excellent obituary, Patti Smith remembers it differently. “There was no real venue in 1973 for people like us. We didn’t fit into the cabarets or the folk clubs. Hilly wanted the people that nobody else wanted. He wanted us.”

Indeed, his musician-friendly approach to running his club served as the model for countless venues around the country. Here in Chicago, two venues that spring immediately to mind are Empty Bottle and the Fireside Bowl back when it booked all-ages shows.

In doing this, Kristal shaped rock music as much as any musician who graced his stage. Perhaps even more so. Some might say it was him being at the right place at the right time. But it was more than that. Despite his protestations, he understood that this music was important. And as a business owner, he knew that there was money to be made. Crowds poured in, drawn by punk’s irresistible energy. Record label execs soon followed. Careers and fortunes were made. Music changed.

By the time I finally made it to CBGB for the first time, it’s time had passed. They still had music every night, but the scene had moved on to other clubs. But you could still feel the energy, the history, the ghosts in this long, narrow, divey joint that had remained as resolutely scruffy as its now gentrifying Bowery neighborhood had been when it opened. And that was as it should be. Rock music needs to feel subversive and at least a little bit dangerous. So do its venues.

Thank you, Hilly. Rest in peace.


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A college kid learns a thing or two

May 9, 2007

Joseph Calleja: The Golden Voice


Back when I was a smartass college kid who knew everything, one of my relatives had a neighbor, Miss Mazola, an old tough cookie of an Italian-American woman who worked in a factory and lived alone in her modest, neat house on a busy St. Louis street. She had a loud, grating voice, a coarse laugh and social habits that reminded me too much of my own family’s blue collar background, one I was running from as fast as I possibly could. So naturally, I sneered at her. Discreetly, of course. As a smartass college kid who knew everything, it goes without saying that I was sensitive to others’ feelings, especially poor uneducated souls like Miss Mazola.

So imagine my surprise when one Saturday afternoon, having been volunteered by my relative to help Miss Mazola move something heavy in her house, I walked in and heard the weekly broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera playing on the radio. Turned out she listened every Saturday, without fail. As someone who prided himself on liking classical music, but not even vaguely ready to accept opera, I suddenly had to look at Miss Mazola in a whole new light. On the one hand, I have to admit I was impressed. On the other, I was more than a little bit resentful. Smartass college kids who know everything hate to be shown up as lacking in any regard, mainly because deep down inside, we’re nothing but one giant trainwreck of insecurities and inadequacies, imagined or otherwise.

Eventually, though, I did grow to like opera. I’m still very much a tyro as a fan—I can’t begin to tell you the story of all but a few operas. I just like the way it sounds and mostly think of the voices as instruments.

Which brings me to Joseph Calleja and this album, The Golden Voice. On first listen, both Marion and I were struck by how much this young Maltese-born tenor sounded like Caruso. I’m sure the producers and engineers did everything they could to capitalize on the similarity. The sound is indeed golden and the overall effect wonderfully pleasing.

But the format, a series of 14 arias—a couple of them duets with sopranos Anna Netrebko and Tatiana Lisnic—but all backed by the same orchestra [okay, it was tThe Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, but still], delivers an overall experience with the dramatic operatic corners rounded off. Granted, listening to an entire opera with its huge dynamic range can send you constantly running for the volume control—this sometimes drives me crazy about classical music in general. But this album kind of suffers from the opposite: too much uniformity in volume and tempo and tone.

All that said, it really is beautiful—very, very listenable. It can give you a lovely taste of opera without the wild mood swings. And hearing Calleja’s Carusoesque voice filling our apartment, I found myself transported to Miss Mazola’s living room, reminded of the surprises everyone has inside if you just take a moment to find them.

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