Cher Public

Outer Burroughs

I remember Charles Busch performing his plays at the Limbo Lounge on Avenue B and asking the audience afterwards, “Did you ever think you’d go this far east in your life?” It was scary over there. But New York is different now, and John Zorn has this hangout, The Stone, on Avenue C (you heard me) at Second Street, a performance space the size of a largeish dorm room. And thus the whirligig of Time brings in his revenges.

Among The Stone’s resident artistic groups is a “composer collective” intriguingly named “Experiments in Opera,” who recently commissioned eleven composers to write songs for James Ilgenfritz’s Anagram Ensemble. The texts were poems from William S. BurroughsThe Travel Agency Is On Fire. Except Burroughs didn’t really write these words; he cut up other guys’ texts and rearranged them as “cut-up”s, a technique partly responsible for his surrealistic novels, such as Naked Lunch and The Ticket that Exploded.

Does anyone still read Burroughs? Well, Ilgenfritz has released a CD opera, The Ticket that Exploded, but I don’t know it. In the text Ilgenfritz set for Friday’s concert, “I Kiss the So-Called Dawn” (from Rimbaud), the musicians, aside from percussive interjections, “played” the singers at will, thumping parts of their bodies (usually back or diaphragm) while they sang. That produced thrumming on certain words; my favorite was “raining,” which sounded like droplets on a Parisian café awning.

Faced with these assignments, the eleven composers went every which way but straight along the road. The musicians included violins, a double bass, an electric guitar, a vibraphone and assorted percussion, played with enthusiasm. Four singers, in various combinations, sang something or other. Words at times. Or grunts. Or murmurs. Or sighs. Lots of sighs in Travis Just’s “Kiss Me,” a Shakespeare cut-up. One of the sonnets? I couldn’t tell. (Didn’t Tristan Tzara do things like this?) Some of the words were “dwell” and “melting.” Full sentences were rare all night. All the singers (and musicians) were amplified, but they sounded good anyway when they had occasion to. There was a lot of street noise from outside (curses, entreaties, sirens) that fit right in.

Each song was introduced by a taped statement (mercifully brief) from its composer, explaining where they came from, instrumentally (bassoon? French horn? pedal steel? among others), and something about where they wanted to go. Happily, the songs were self-explanatory or self-incriminating. Incomprehension may be blamed on Bill Burroughs, though I think he’d have liked that.

Incomprehension, for me, was greatest in Katie Young’s setting of a Kerouac cut-up, “real real real red,” wherein Burroughs rearranged the words alphabetically. Thus the first line was “a a a a a a” followed by “and and and and and,” and after that I just sort of endured it. In “Out Of Man,” Charlie Looker’s setting of Jean Genet, the singers growled a lot of words, including obscenities and observations of obscenity, in which the vocal technique clashed with sentiment to convey the writer’s ire and wit.

Anne Guthrie’s setting of a Scott Fitzgerald text, “Even the Stains Pale,” conveyed a serene mood with lyrical electric violin riffs. Jason Cady’s setting of “Cut Up With Catcher in the Rye” focused on Holden Caulfield incoheren, stream-of-conscious disgust. JG Thirlwell drew the final spot, “The Travel Agency Is On Fire,” a cut-up of Anthony Burgess, that built artfully to an entertaining climax and sent us out humming, sighing, splattering, in a mood to jam. You know? On such a program, this jolly conclusion can’t be as easy to produce as it seemed.

The prettiest voice of the evening, or the one most often permitted to be pretty, belonged to tenor Nathaniel Adams, a pure, even sound he usually deploys in medieval or Renaissance music—good training for the crazy demands of modern composers. Soprano Megan Schubert, who specializes in contemporary performances, was assigned more declamatory duties but when she had the chance produced lovely, languid phrases. Amirtha Kidambi, a soprano given to jazz and “improvisation,” drew the melodramatic assignments in Genet and Burgess works and performed with thrilling intensity. Michael Douglas Jones, a bass, did not seem much discomforted by a high-ish tessitura, but then he also had more to declaim or sigh than sing.

Photograph: Estate of William S Burroughs

  • Jamie01

    The William S. Burroughs/Tom Waits/Robert Wilson take on Der Freischütz.

  • Timur de Morte

    I saw that, Jamie! Godawful!

  • redbear

    Don’t know if posted elsewhere but the Paris Opera’s big deal first night new production of the season, Moses und Aron, is live on their website and concert arte at 7:30 CET Tues. Bernstein’s talk about Schoenberg on YT I found Helpful.

  • redbear

    About Moses und Aron, forget Bernstein’s dull lecture. Here’s the real deal (in French):

  • Feldmarschallin

    Has anyone hear heard Amber Wagner or better said seen her? I have been told by various people who were in the Ariadne that she is incredibly obese and fatter than Eaglen, Voigt and Sweet. Two sisters who have been going since 1958 said she is the fattest they have ever seen and they have seen them all including Hunter. Apparently she is like a barrel.

    • la vociaccia

      Trenchant artistic commentary right here.

    • spiderman

      Feldmarschallin, sometimes I have the feeling that you have moments when your brain just refuses to work. “incredibly obese” “fatter than” “fattest” “like a Barrel” all in 5 lines. Congratulations!

    • PCally

      Feldmarschallin, based on my one experience with her (her met debut) she is quite a good singer and for someone as large as she is, she moves around quite well. At least when I went I didn’t find her weight all that distracting and I liked her better than radvanovsky. She’s certainly more mobile than Eaglen who basically couldn’t even walk across a stage the few times I saw her. She is also a more expressive singer than Eaglen and Voigt (never saw Sweet) though her diction isn’t the best. There’s nothing lethargic or lazy about her singing. Have no idea what she’s like as Ariadne but I’ve seen the production twice and I can’t imagine there’s blocking in that staging that she wouldn’t be able to do.

      • operadunce

        I saw Ms. Wagner in the LOC Trovatore a year ago and my experience was similar to that of PCally. She sang well and was believable in the role. Weight was not an issue.

    • gustave of montreal

      fatter than ultra-obese Bonnie Grape?

    • I saw and heard her last week and can say your friends are exaggerating.

      • Feldmarschallin

        No they were not exagerrating about her weight. She was incredibly obese and looked ghastly in the Vorspiel with a green wrap around dress and flats. Pieczonka had something else on darker and with high heeled boots. People were laughing around me. She can move for a fat girl and was very funny. But the voice. I would say much, much better than Eaglen, Voigt and Sweet and a dark soprano with is seemless and no register breaks. Good volume and top and many colours. She can sing mezza voce but is lacking a true piano. In the second part she wore the black dress but should have had a corset on since you saw these two rings around her stomach which did not look nice at all in the clingy jersey dress. But the voice is very, very good and I think she could do a very good Sieglinde since she has a good low register and substantial middle. But the voice is of much higher quality than Eaglen, Voigt and Sweet more like Hunter who I never heard live. But nonetheless she is enormous. Rae was good if with a somewhat small voice and Seiffert surprised me at how easy he can still sing the role. Petrenko was the star of the evening with perfect tempi and a very balanced orchestra and it is a delight to see him give every Einsatz. I sat in the 5th row so had a very good view of everything. Coote was good as the Komponist but is also putting on large amounts of weight.

        • As you wish.

          • But a beautiful voice, as you say.

            • Feldmarschallin

              Yes a beautiful voice and would be even better would she understand the charachter of Ariadne better and do more with the words. Jessye Norman was a superb Ariadne along with Gruberova in Wien. That was a magical evening.

            • PCally

              Feldmarschallin, do you think Schwanewilms will ever sing the role in Munich. I would absolutely love to see her in the role. Also, did you see the festival performances with Westbroek in the role? I remember her as being pretty fantastic.

            • Feldmarschallin

              No Westbroek I skipped. I have asked Schwanewilms and she would sing it but of course someone else always takes precedence here and since she and that soprano sing many of the same roles she gets the short end of the deal. But maybe now at least Ariadne will remain an option. OK I am off to Mefistofele GP.

  • Feldmarschallin
    • la vociaccia

      Detective Feldmarschallin: saving the opera going public from the calamity of looking at fat people.

      She’s a really good singer, not that it matter to you or anything,

    • manou

      Oh I dunno -- her arms look OK here….

      • Bill

        I think that Feldmarschallin was just commenting
        that Amber Wagner is not svelte -- many of our
        favorite singers do not look like ballet dancers.
        It is not infrequently that writers on Parterre comment
        on a singer’s appearance or apparel, often negatively.

        • la vociaccia

          It’s not what was being said; its how it was said that is the problem.

          • RosinaLeckermaul

            I remember when critics used to describe Tebaldi before her slimming down as “Junoesque.” Maybe we should bring back that euphemism.

            • Feldmarschallin

              “Junoesque.” may be applied to Tebaldi and early Callas but not to Wagner, Voigt, Eaglen or Sweet. Those are in a special category and it would be insulting to put those two groups together. For those who do not believe me there is a livestream tomorrow of the Ariadne. Especially give notice to how the jersey fabric hugs the two ‘rings’ in the black dress. Also Tebaldi etc were all very tall women. This one if fairly short on top of it.

            • manou


            • Feldmarschallin

              No Manou. Back in those days women were not obese like that. Apparently they don’t have a mirror at home since one doesn’t become like that overnight. And on top of it looking horrible it has to be bad for your overall health. Imagine what her joints will look like when she is older. Hip replacement, knee replacement, high blood pressure, heart conditions and much more.

            • armerjacquino

              It would be insulting to put those two groups together

              Well thank goodness you avoided being insulting.

            • Cicciabella

              Without wading into the large-singer minefield, I’d like to point out that jersey flatters almost no-one and should be banned from the opera stage. Even Harteros, a statuesque woman with curves in all the right places, was not flattered by the stretchy material in the Munich Arabella. Jersey just looks tacky, especially in HD, and reveals every bobble and crease. Down with jersey! If wardrobe staff don’t like ironing, they’re in the wrong profession.

            • armerjacquino

              Ciccia- I can safely say that no designer ever based his or her design on what the wardrobe staff were prepared to iron!

              I was unlucky enough to do a stage management job which involved wardrobe maintenance once. Let’s just say you learn a lot about someone from the state they leave their costume in and leave it at that…

        • rapt

          “It is not infrequently that writers on Parterre comment
          on a singer’s appearance or apparel, often negatively.”

          May not Feldmaschallin be given a special star in this category, however, as hors concours?

          • I want to see Feldmaschallin’s arms

            • Patrick Mack

              Oh, touché Olivero. I say the bigger the better. When I see someone sizeable on stage I know I’m not going to have to worry generally about whether or not they’re going to be able to sing the role.

            • Feldmarschallin

              Come to Ariadne on Friday or Mefistofele on Saturday and you can see my arms.

            • PCally

              I find the comment that when Patrick sees a heavy singer he’s assured they can sing to be one that isn’t really played out by fact. Eaglen and sweet were obese and could barely cope vocally with some of the assignments the met gave them. Their primes lasted about a nano-second and their weight arguably made their singing lethargic and sloppy. Norman sang ariadne beautifully like twice and then had to fake her way through the role towards the end. It’s not like the women who have dominated Wagners rep have been heavy. Two of the most acclaimed Ariadnes are pieczonka and schwanewilms. Both are half Wagners size and both are considerably superior singers with more to offer. This is not to bash Wagner, who I like, only to point out that weight has rarely if ever guaranteed good singing.

            • armerjacquino

              There’s also a reverse assumption that a slimmer, more conventionally attractive singer has only been cast because of how he or she looks. Garanca and Opolais have both suffered from this in their time, despite both being obviously major artists.

            • Porgy Amor

              I’m no expert where Ms. Eaglen is concerned, but wasn’t she singing major roles on the local scene at ENO and Scottish Opera for a number of years, close to a decade, before her name was on everyone’s lips in the mid ’90s thanks to Levine and Muti and her RCA contract? She may have had more good years than she’s commonly credited for.

            • PCally

              Porgy, I’m not an expert myself but I think that the biggest roles she sang were things like Leonore (Trovatore) and Santuzza and that other than things like Norns and Valkyries she didn’t get into heavy Wagner until the early nineties. Internationally, She was singing things like Bertha up until the late nineteen eighties. Isolde didn’t come until the late nineties and Brunnhilde and Norma only a little earlier. So that’s basically a decade singing big Wagner roles and less than that singing them well. At least when I hear her first Isoldes at the met, I thought that the voice was pleasant sounding but technically wayward. She crapped out around the end of the love duet.

            • PCally

              jacquino, that’s another strong point. Garanca is rail thin by opera standards and whatever one things of her as a performer, I can’t think of anyone who sings her roles as well as she does and the women who did in the past were all of a similar build.
              I don’t think its a good thing to zero in on someone’s weight. I’m not advocating that. However, the response to someone doing that always seems to be either that fat singers know how to sing, end of discussion, or that in the past there was considerably more heavy singers than there are now, even though there’s almost no real evidence supporting that. Most of the famous women who sang Ariadne were, at their heaviest, not anywhere near as heavy as the three women mentioned above and most of them were better singers whose careers lasted longer.

  • DonCarloFanatic

    At Tannhauser the other night I got into a conversation with a lady who said she couldn’t imagine Henry VIII leaving “hot” Sondra Radvanovsky for “fatso” (her words) Jamie Barton. Yet in real life, Anne Boleyn was prettier (though not conventionally golden-haired) and wittier than Jane Seymour, so it’s not as far-fetched as it might seem. There is no accounting for taste.

    We do have a nice talented crop of “big girls” right now and we should be grateful they have the voices to sing these demanding roles. What I’m sad about is that many of them may be convinced they need to be this big to sing this well. That, I doubt. Zaftig will do it, as Anna Netrebko has proven. There’s no denying she isn’t the sylph she once was, but what a voice!

  • Patrick Mack

    Wait. There’s a plural for ‘revenge’?

    • armerjacquino

      Shakespeare, innit. Twelfth Night.

  • Fluffy-net

    A good rule for life and a good rule for sites like this:

    Take what you like and leave the rest

    If every harsh comment got as many comments as the above, there would be 1000 entries an hour here. Whereas a comment ignored is a comment forgotten.