Thursday, March 21, 2013

Opera and me.


The Metropolitan Opera . New York.
For the last almost 30 years , I  have had the privilege to attend performances at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. My friend Jerry and I have a subscription to the Saturday afternoon performances for the last 25 years and we have heard some magnificent music and singers.

Royal Opera House - London
When I studied in London in the early 70's I went to Covent Garden regularly and was introduced to the top opera singers of that time .It was the time of Sutherland, Pavarotti, Price ,Bumbry, Domingo, Caballe, Nilsson, Rysanek, Krause, Freni, Carreras, Scotto, Verret, Jones  and many singers that the Royal Opera House invited to sing there. As it was the first time that I heard international opera stars of that caliber sing .It was a time of discovery for me .I remember sitting there and being transported to another level of consciousness .A lot of it had to do with youth -as well as experiencing something for the first time. It was very, very exciting .I also had the opportunity to hear older opera stars like  Maria Callas and Giuseppi di Stefano as well as Renata Tebaldi and Franco Corelli in concert.

La Scala -Milan
During the same period I went to performances at the Rome Opera ,the Baths of Caracalla , as well as the Arena in Verona. When I lived in Milan I also attended performances at  La Scala and travelled with my friend Neil, to Vienna where we visited the Vienna State Opera. This gave me the opportunity to hear the best singers in some of the top opera houses of Europe.

Vienna State Opera - Vienna
When I returned to South Africa for nine years I kept listening to opera recordings and attended some opera performances in South Africa .Montserrat Caballe, Fiorenza Cosotto ,Renato  Bruson and Victoria de los Angeles were among some world class singers that visited South Africa and performed during that time .
In 1983 I immigrated to the USA and from then on the Metropolitan Opera House has become my hometown opera company, and what a joy it has been.
During the nine years that I was living  in South Africa a whole new crop of singers took over. If an artist did not record, we were not aware of them in Africa. Being in New York I also got to know more about American singers that rarely sang in Europe and had careers in America and specifically at the Metropolitan Opera and the new York City Opera . Singers like Beverly Sills, Eileen Farrell Norman Treigle and  Regina Resnik to name a few.
By this time Price , Caballe, Sutherland , Freni, Scotto, Bumbry were winding down and their performances became less and less.The men like Pavarotti and Domingo lasted a bit longer but all of a sudden there were new names to hear and watch.
 American singers like Thomas Hampson, Jesse Norman ,Renee Fleming, Susan Graham .Ruth-Anne Swenson, Leona Mitchel, Samuel Ramey,Neil Schicof ,Deborah Voigt, Kathleen Battle. Florence Quivar, Maria Ewing  Richard Leech and Catharina Malfitano.
From Europe there were Eva Marton. Hildegarde Behrens, Kiri te Kanawa, Karita Matilla and Natalie Dessay. South African singers like Marita Napier, Elizabeth Connell, Deon van der Walt and Johan Botha started to perform at the Met as well, and that made is specially thrilling for me as I became friends with them and started to learn more about the glamorous opera world -that turned out not to be as glamorous as I thought.
Soon after came singers like Rolando Villazon, Poitr Bezsala, Anna Netrebko ,Elina Garanca ,Diana Damrau who has became stars is their own right. Today we have new singers making their debut at the Met every season, and it is difficult to keep up with all of them. Some come once and we never hear from them again but soon the good ones start returning and before we know it another opera star is born. There is no overnight stardom in opera.... It is a hard and tough road for every singer.
When I got to America in 1983 I was disillusioned with the performances, as I was comparing them to the performances I saw 10 years before. I forgot that I was younger and that everything was so new and exciting to me. For a while I missed the highs I  felt at every performance during my student years. After I stopped comparing the previous performances with the new ones it opened up a whole new way for me to listen to opera and keep an open mind.
I was so used to recordings that it was difficult to get use to hear the real voice in the opera house. Some voices are better on recordings that live and vice versa. I also became much more involved with the orchestra ,choir and conductor of the piece. I use to only listen to the female voices where I  now experience the opera as a whole. It has become such a richer experience for me.
Jerry has a very good ear but he also listened symphonic music much more that I did. If the human voice was not in the composition I would  have a tough time listening to it. We discuss the music and singer during interval and are sometime joined by other Met opera lovers that we got to know.
One thing that irritates me to no end is when a opera lover says-
 "Oh well she is no Sutherland "or "Did you ever hear Callas in this role?" 
Both Callas and Sutherland -who were outstanding artists- are not with us anymore and Callas sang her last live performance more than 50 years ago! You are not opening yourself up to a new experience and you are wasting your time sitting in the live performance.  If you want to hear Callas stay home and listen to her on records. Be in the moment and listen to what you hear NOW. Forget about older -or other artists. This is not their performance. Give the singers of the day your attention and ear. The music does not change but with each new singer you hear in the role, you will find something new in their interpretation. Callas use to say "Everything is in the music- listen....!"
By keeping an open mind opera still stays modern. To hear younger singers perform classical music gives it new life. The music never changes but the singers do .Don't get stuck in yesterday -if you do you will miss out on a wonderful experience.Not every singer will catch your attention, but when it happens- it is a very moving experience. Be open to it or else you will throw out the baby with the bath water.

Sunday, March 10, 2013



Today was one of those magical -musicals days in New York.

I had to meet Len van Zyl, and old friend from South Africa for breakfast. 
Len is a very special man ,who puts his money where his mouth is.He sponsors a South Africa conductor's competition in associations with the Symphony Orchestra of Cape Town. Unlike in America, there is no  tax break for any money given to charities in South Africa. Len  brings the winner to the USA with his wife Elise, and at their expense , house and feed him/her for three month in Philadelphia and Chicago. The winner interns with the Philharmonic Orchestra and attend master classes.

Len who had a successful international career in the fields of advertising and marketing, also has a passionate interest in music throughout his life. His career included among others the chairman of South Africa's biggest advertising agency (Lindsay Smithers-FCB). President /CEO of Foote Cone & Belding the  advertising agency in Philadelphia USA from 1992-1995.He was also the chief executive of the South African Foreign Trade Organization (SAFTO) Len and his wife ,Elise, now split their residence between Cape Town and Philadelphia USA. During the years in the USA he served on the development committee of the famous Philadelphia Orchestra and was also a member of the Metropolitan Opera Guild.
This morning Len brought the latest winner of this competitions, Xavier Cloete, to New York from Philadelphia for the day . After breakfast we were all going to a performance of Verdi's "Don Carlos"  at the Metropolitan Opera and see the 83 year old conductor Lorin Maazel  on the podium.

Brandon Philips, Len van Zyl,  Xavier Cloete

The first winner three years ago was Brandon Phillips who  received a big boost in his career after his time in the USA.

Xavier Cloete

Xavier Cloete started playing the bassoon in 2006 under Ingo Holland. After graduating with BMus degree in 2011 from the Stellenbosch University, he was accepted at the KwaZulu -Natal Philharmonic Orchestra (KZNPO) as a cadet and is currently continuing his studies in conducting under the resident conductor of the KZNPO Lykele Temmingh.  Xavier also assists with rehearsing the  KZN Youth orchestra. In the USA he will enjoy an internship with the famous Philadelphia Orchestra and then proceed to the Northwestern University in Chicago for a semester in the graduating class of Maestro Victor Yampolsky.All thanks to Len and his generosity.

Xavier Cloete

Xavier Cloete

To join us was another of Len's protégés - the 28 year old bass baritone Musa Ngqungwana.
He was in New York to appear in the  concert for the Nationalist Council Audition  finalists  concert  at the Metropolitan Opera on Sunday afternoon, hosted by soprano Sondra Radvanofsky.

Musa is a third year student at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, and has a beautiful bass baritone voice that can incorporate the Bel Canto repertoire.
Listen to his voice here:

Musa did not join us for the opera as he needed his rest for his big day on Sunday

With so many South Africa classical musicians it is very sad that the ANC Government feel that opera and classical music is too  Eurocentric to deserve any financial support from them. The private sector receives no tax break if they want to sponsor it, so there is a  danger that classical music and orchestras will disappear in Southern Africa. The Cape Town orchestra has stopped their very popular Sunday evening performances and hanging on by the skin of their teeth. The Johannesburg Symphony Orchestra is bankrupt and does no exist anymore.  In Durban we still have the KwaZulu -Natal Orchestra, of which Xavier is a member. Their Chief Executive  and Artistic Director is Bongani Tembe that knows how to work the system, and he was able to bring  Renee Fleming to South Africa to perform.

Pretty Yende

Elza van den Heever

At the Metropolitan Opera we had two South African sopranos making  their debuts in January of 2013 with great acclaim-. Elza van den Heever and Pretty Yende.
Since the 1980's South African singers has been singing at the Metropolitan Opera-
Elizabeth Connell, Marita Napier, Deon van der Walt, Johan Botha, Kobie van Rensburg. Elza van den Heever and  Pretty Yende .Next season the South Africa soprano Amanda Eschelaz will make her debut at the Metropolitan Opera  as "Madame Butterfly" in Puccini's opera.


The opera started at 11:00 am today as the union rules state that the orchestra has to have a 3 hours break between performances . "Francesca di Rimini" was schedules for 6:00 pm this evening .
Jerry joined us as he took the early train for Trenton to be in time for the early performance.
Xavier was very excited to see Lorin Maazel .

Ferrucio Furlanetto as King Philip 11  in "Don Carlos"

Verdi's "Don Carlos"is based on the writings of  Friedrich Schiller .The opera  is set in Spain in 1560 during the reign of Philip ll of Spain. The other characters are his third wife Elizabeth de Valois and his son Don Carlo. Elizabeth was first betrothed to Carlos but then  had to marry the King for political reason, even while she was in love with her stepson.This forms the plot of this opera triangular that ends tragically .
The singers in the performance were:-
Don Carlos- Ramon Vargas
King Philip11 - Ferruccio Furlanetto,
Elisabetta- Barbara Frittoli
Rodrigo- Dimitri Hvorostofsky
Princess Eboli- Anna Smirnova.
The Grand Inquisitor- Eric Halverson.
 The conductor was Lorin Maazel.

Lorin Maazel

Ramon Vargas

Barbara Frittoli

Anna Smirnova + Dimitri Hvorostofsky

When the jealous Princess Eboli tells the King that the  Queen is having an affair with his son- the whole story come to an dramatic end . It was a wonderful and exciting performance and one felt blessed to witness such great singers and musicians on stage, and we left on a high!

King Philip 11 of Spain

Elizabeth de Valois

In real life King Philip 11 was very much in love with his third wife Elizabeth de Valois when she arrived in Spain as his 14 year old bride. His second  wife was Queen Mary  (Bloody Mary)  of England  ( Elizabeth 1 sister)  .Elizabeth de Valois was a French princess and her mother was Catherine de Medici of Florence who married a French prince who became King Henry 11 of France.
Elizabeth  grew up with two other famous  women who also became immortalized in opera -
 Mary, Queen of Scots ,who was her sister in law .Gaetano Donizetti wrote his opera "Maria Stuarda" about her tragic life. The other was Elizabeth's younger sister  Marguerite de Valois Queen of Navarre . In  "Les Huguenots" the  French opera by Giacomo Meyerbeer Joan Sutherland's interpretation  became synonyms with this queen.
Elizabeth had 2 daughters with the King Philip 11 and she seemed to be happy in her marriage to her "charming prince " as she wrote to her mother. There is no mention of her being in love with her stepson.

Carlos, Prince of Asturias

Don Carlos , her stepson ,who was supposed to be her lover in the opera was a rather different kettle of fish. Carlos left an unfavorable impression on some foreign ambassadors. The Venetian ambassador Hieronymo Soranzo thought that Carlos was "ugly and repulsive". The young Infante Carlos was delicate and deformed. He grew up proud and willful and, as a young adult, began to show signs of mental instability. Many of his physical and psychological afflictions may have stemmed from inbreeding  common to the House of Hapsburg and the royal houses of Portugal and Spain. Carlos had only four great-grandparents instead of the maximum of eight, and his parents had the same coefficient of coancestry as if they were half siblings. He had only six great-great-grandparents, instead of the maximum 16. His maternal grandmother and his paternal grandfather were brother and sister, his maternal grandfather and his paternal grandmother were also brother and sister, and his two great-grandmothers were sisters.He  exhibited an antipathy towards his father, whose murder, according to Carlo's confessor , he supposedly contemplated at one time. In the autumn of 1567 he made preparations to flee to the Netherlands. In January 1568 Don Carlos was arrested and placed in solitary confinement on his father's orders. He died in isolation six months later.


Len and Xavier left to explore more of New York.
 After Dinner with Jerry, who had to take the train back to Trenton, I came home and was very thankful to have spend such a full day and hear such beautiful music. How sad life would have been without it -and empty without such talented people around.