Cher Public

The singer’s art

prelude boheme revisedLast night I saw a production of La bohème that made me realize something: call me old fashioned, but when I go to the opera, I go to hear beautiful singing. This is because quality singing is the only practice that opera does better than any other popular discipline. Sure, there is good singing to be found in the recital and concert hall, but for me the real blood-and-guts singing has always remained within the opera house. 

It may sound sacrilegious, but when I go to the opera I do not invest that much of my interest in staging, costumes, acting or set design. These elements can be found elsewhere: If I want drama, I go to the movies, see a play, or watch TV; if I care about poetry and language, I pick up a book; if I want movie-star glamour, I open up the latest issue of Vogue.

But, if I want high-octane-change-your-life singing, I go to the opera. It’s what the opera house does best. And, while many operatic performances utilize fashion, interesting staging, and exciting visuals to great effect, these elements cannot rescue an opera from poor singing.

I write all this because these were the thoughts going through my head last night in the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College, during a performance of La bohème. Presented by the Martina Arroyo Foundation, the evening enacted the organization’s mission statement: the foundation’s goal is “to prepare and counsel young singers in the interpretation of complete operatic roles for public performance.” And I believe it is because of this singer-based concentration that I experienced one of the most satisfying nights at the opera I’ve had in a long time.

Certainly, one might easily have found the whole project to be stiflingly conservative. Limited by the educational needs of the singers, the production was a rather simple iteration of Puccini’s classic story of love and sickness on the fringe. Avoiding anachronism, Ian Campbell’s direction deployed one slight conceptual innovation, which was to stage the entire narrative within the confines of Marcello and Rodolfo’s apartment. However, this concept was not really an attempt at theorization, but more of a streamlining mechanism, which allowed the drama to unfold seamlessly.

Consequently, the evening’s merits hinged on singing. Yes, Rodolfo may have been slightly shorter than Mimì, and all of the performers lacked a certain movie-star veneer. And the direction was a tad rudimentary. However, I simply did not care. I did not care at all, because the singers possessed something infinitely more rare, something exponentially more important: talent.

For example, Dángelo Diaz’s Rodolfo possessed a ringing ssnor, with fluid phrasing and easy flexibility above the passaggio. And as his Mimì, the original Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Jessica Sandidge spun luminous strands of silver vocalism, creating a subtle characterization that was not overwrought, yet deeply complex.

Marcello, sung by Jeff Byrnes, was equally competent, with a well-produced baritone and a realistic, measured approach to his character’s sharp turns of jealousy and amiability. His chemistry with Rodolfo was especially charming and authentic, instead of the faux-bro gesticulations one often sees. However, the evening’s triumph belonged to his Musetta, the excellent Claire Coolen. The soprano’s singing and deportment belied her status as a young artist, and her musicality showed both an adept instrument as well as a close attention to detail.

In the supporting roles of Schaunard and Colline, Chunfeng Li and José Rubio were sturdy and consistent, amplifying a vocally competent ensemble. The result was a bohème that moved briskly under the direction of Willie Anthony Waters—lustrous and fresh, despite its longstanding presence within the repertory.

It was this freshness that was the most revealing; and, I believe it was due to the production’s overall reliance on the singers’ art. Last night’s performance of La bohème made a strong case for opera as primarily a singing practice. The complexity, the glamour, the drama were present within the music—there was no need to decontextualize the plot, spice up the eroticism, or straightjacket the narrative with an ideological agenda. All that was needed were well-prepared, committed singers, and a musical text that remains evergreen in its genius.

  • mjmacmtenor

    The name Willie Anthony Walters (the conductor) rang a bell. It seems he was artistic director of Florida Grand Opera in Miami) in the early 90s and regularly returns as a guest conductor. I have heard his work several times and the “students” of Prelude to Performance were privileged to work with him.

  • LT

    That second paragraph is the equivalent of politically incorrect here. What most are thinking but few dare to say :D

    • armerjacquino

      Or, more accurately, what a few people think and never bloody shut up saying.

    • bronzino

      Bravo, PCJ!

      How reassuring to hear that the cognoscenti still listen with their ears! And make judgements as to quality of vocal production with selfsame vertebrate organ! “Standards, gentles all, standards…”

      • PCally

        Well that’s not really the point. People can listen in any way they want. But the comment was “That second paragraph is the equivalent of politically incorrect here. What most are thinking but few dare to say :D” Clearly LT hasn’t been on Parterre all that long if he/she thinks that’s anywhere close to being true. The conversation about theatrical values in opera is probably the most brought up topic after Netrebko, Fleming, and how much some people hate Gelb. And the people who fume against non-traditional productions talk about nothing else.

        • armerjacquino

          It is THE MOST tedious and tediously rehashed topic possible. And it’s based on a false opposition: the idea that beautiful singing and exciting theatre somehow can’t co-exist. Opera is a musical AND a dramatic art form and you can’t just pretend away either of those elements. God save us from that tired old ‘If I want drama, I’ll go to the theatre’ trope. It’s as ridiculous as saying to a waiter ‘take that wine away, I come to restaurants for the food. If I wanted wine, I’d go to a vineyard’.

          You like beautiful singing? Fine. Seek it out. Gorge yourself. Just (a) don’t imagine it somehow makes you a better person and (b) don’t reduce a multifaceted art form to the bit you happen to like best.

          • bronzino

            What’s THE MOST tedious is the refusal to recognize that the dramatic/theatrical aspect is secondary to the vocal aspect, opera’s raison d’etre. We certainly don’t begrudge you enjoying just the razzle-dazzle if you wish. A dinner of just fine wine is no dinner at all, although you may still enjoy it.

            • armerjacquino

              the dramatic/theatrical aspect is secondary to the vocal aspect

              Says who?

              just the razzle-dazzle

              How very embarrassing.

              A dinner of just fine wine is no dinner at all

              Oh, apologies. I didn’t realise you hadn’t actually read my post.

            • LT

              Says the fact that you can give a concert version of an opera (no acting, directing, empty stage), and it’s still an opera but you can’t have an opera without music. The main ingredient is the music, the rest comes after.

            • armerjacquino

              Yeah, what you’ve described is a concert. You can have a reading of a play in an empty room too, and what you’re left with is a reading. Tell me, if music is the only thing that makes an opera an opera, why not just sing everything to ‘ooh’? Is it still an opera then?

              But I give up: some people are just determined to fillet opera down to their favourite part, and nothing will stop them.

            • PCally

              “Says the fact that you can give a concert version of an opera (no acting, directing, empty stage), and it’s still an opera”

              In fact, it is not. It’s a concert.

            • armerjacquino

              ‘I just read WAITING TO GODOT to my fridge. It was still a play.’

            • armerjacquino

              TO Godot?

              Autocorrect is Dadaist today.

            • LT

              An opera is still an opera no matter if it’s presented as a concert or a staged performance. It still contains a story, characters, dialogue, etc.
              The closest equivalent I can think of is radio theater. The basic elements are there. You can still transmit the meaning of the words with your own interpretation without a director, costumes, scenery, etc. All of that is something extra even in straight up theater.

            • armerjacquino

              It still contains a story, characters, dialogue, etc.

              By that logic, my brain is a novel.

            • PCally

              “All that is extra even in straight up and theatre”

              In fact it isn’t. The composer and playwright (one assumes) wrote their pieces with the stage in mind. That’s why La Boheme is an opera as opposed to an oratorio. The staging is part of the definition of opera. Clearly Puccini understand the importance how of his work would come across onstage.

            • jackoh

              Speaking of oratorios, has anyone ever done a staged version of “Die Schopfung” including sets, costumes and special effects? That is something that I would love to see.

            • LT

              “By that logic, my brain is a novel.”
              I don’t know. I’m not a psychiatrist.

              PCally, an oratotio is something completely different. La Boheme will not become an oratorio if presented in a concert version because it’s not a religious theme, there is character development, interaction, etc. Yes, it was created with the stage in mind, but without it, it does not become another genre of stage performance.
              And by your logic, we can argue until tomorrow about how Puccini would view his works being presented in contemporary regie opera which many people advocate.

            • Jungfer Marianne Leitmetzerin

              jackoh: Theater an der Wien will give staged performances of “Die Schöpfung” in a production by La Fura dels Baus in May 2017.

            • PCally

              “And by your logic, we can argue until tomorrow about how Puccini would view his works being presented in contemporary regie opera which many people advocate.”

              Hardly. I said he intended his works to be staged and wrote with that in mind. Not really the same thing at all.

            • jackoh

              Jungfer: Thanks for that information. I can’t imagine a better group to pull this off. And if I can’t make it over there, I hope to be able to see it on Medici or some other venue. Actually, I was imagining a production directed by someone like Calixto Bieito. It would feature a profoundly bored God sitting on the toilet and deciding to, or fantasizing about, making a diversion to occupy his otherwise lonely days.

    • The problem is that the people who express this “idea” generally do so in the most illogical and aggressively vituperative terms possible, and then act as if they have just delivered the Sinai Tablets to a gang of rutting apostates. And don’t forget “most stage directors are frauds who are only after publicity and can’t read music and Verdi is spinning in his grave.

      And then we get to hear the whinge about “political correctness” if anyone bothers to point out the stupidity of their ill-considered remark.

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    Interesting that Martina has given the disgraced (ex-San Diego Opera chief) Ian Campbel the opportunity to direct this show.

  • “But, if I want high-octane-change-your-life singing, I go to the opera. It’s what the opera house does best. And, while many operatic performances utilize fashion, interesting staging, and exciting visuals to great effect, these elements cannot rescue an opera from poor singing.”

    I was going to reply, but changed my mind. There’s no point.

  • Bill Way

    Ian Campbell did not stage it all in the garret. He did use large panels that looked like oversized shoji screens to suggest the garret skylights, then the rear wall of Cafe Momus, then (less effectively) the Paris gates.

    I went Saturday. Wonderful singing and fully-formed characters that I cared about. Act III, which for me is usually just a long setup to a great quartet, drew tears. Willie Waters’ conducting was fresh and often surprising, always in a good way.

    Simply wonderful.


    Added coolness factor: Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor was in the house.

  • Camille

    It seems to me that Mme Arroyo majored in Sociology when she attended Hunter College many years ago, or so I recall reading. This series of performances done under her influence would seem to me to be her coming back home again and implementing some of that sociological good works ethic she must have ben imbued with alongside her extensive singing career, and to me, that is a most excellent thing. The fact that this experiment seems to be wholly successful, that worthy young people are not only tiven a lot of good professional advice and training, but actually get a chance to perform on a significant level, and that the audience, and in this case Our Own Mr James, enjoys an excellent performance, is truly an inspiring and exceptional thing and makes me pause to reflect that at least something is still going right in this world. And that Martina Arroyo puts her money where her mouth is, making us all the richer.

    Excellent review and kudos to Patrick Clement James for his thoughtfulness and considerations, and perspicacity.

  • Krunoslav

    Miss Arroyo in fact studied Romance Languages; but her first job was as a social worker for NYC. Her energetic commitment to this program, largely for less than privileged students, is impressive.

    • Camille

      Excuse me. I read somewhere that she studied to become a social worker, and she studied at Hunter. I suddenly realised this and hoped to correct myself but found I’d already been corrected. About her study of languages I had not previously known or read anything.

      Any you slice or dice it, she came back home; she done good.

      • Camille

        Any WAY you slice it…etc. Botheration!

        And, I’m so glad she didn’t take the advice to “don’t quit your day job”, as she once quipped on line.

        Thanks to the great Miss Butterball!