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January 12 : "'I was conflicted about my success. There was this negative voice sabotaging me. I had the divorce as well and, on top of that, I got stage fright: a triple whammy." Barf alert: Renaaay yaks it up on topics ranging from terrorism to ice skating to dating billionaires -- with Peter Conrad, who really should know better.

Will conflicts with AGMA lead to a cancellation of the New York City Opera's spring season? A source close to NYCO reports "hostile tactics and brinkmanship" from the current administration relating to health insurance and pension benefits. "Needless to say this is very bad for the morale of the company," adds the source, who goes on to warn subscribers that the spring season is by no means a done deal. 

The New York City Gay Men's Chorus backed up Deborah Voigt for "A Winter Evening of Holiday Songs and Spirituals" at Christ & St Stephen's Church. As it happened, La Cieca was seated for this program more or less directly opposite Eileen Farrell, who looked to be having a ball. On several of the songs such as "I Wonder as I Wander" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" I could see her lips moving along with Ms. Voigt's singing. And at the end of "Go Tell It on the Mountain," when Ms. Voigt let loose with a soulful melisma on the high note, Farrell mouthed "Oh yeah!" before leading the applause.

This is not so surprising since in the lighter numbers Ms. Voigt's vocal approach was reminiscent of Farrell's in the 1950s: warm and musical "straight" pop singing in medium keys, with just a touch of swing in the rhythm. Adding to the delights: the comic encore songs "The Twelve Days After Christmas" and "All I Want for Christmas is Some Real Estate," the latter by the program's musical director James Bassi. A lovely holiday gift from Ms. Voigt to her New York public, one I hope may become an annual tradition. 

From a Chicago reader comes the distressing news of a "shocking" performance of the Four Last Songs by Jane Eaglen: "Screamed top, no bottom, and the German sucked. She forgot the words after the climactic phrase of 'Beim Schlafengehen.' Daniel Barenboim glared at her and gave her every subsequent cue huge. Eaglen spent the whole set trying to hide behind her shawl. We were clutching our seats in horror!"

La Cieca can't say too much about last week's exciting opening of Die Frau Ohne Schatten, since JJ will be reviewing it for LGNY later this month. But I will say this: Frau is definitely one of the strongest nights at the Met in the last few seasons, with excellent casting throughout, a workable and thoughtful production, and a really stunning breakthrough performance by Christian Thielemann. Man, do we need this man at at the Met! JJ's reviews of the Met's revivals of Traviata and Madama Butterfly are now


By now I'm sure you've seen the most recent issue of Opera News, with saucy Herr Thielemann gracing the cover. Glance down (no, not there, naughty!) and you'll see that this issue will feature a broadcast of something called "Die Frau Ohne Shatten." Oops. But La Cieca doesn't blame the dear boys at ON for missing one little "C," since (as we found out last night) la Deb sings all of hers!

Le Tout New York is of course looking forward to cabaret goddess Barbara Cook's upcoming concert at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont theater beginning the end of December. The program concentrates on Stephen Sondheim but also includes songs by such composers and lyricists as Harold Arlen & E.Y. Harburg, Cy Coleman & Dorothy Fields, Jerry Bock & Sheldon Harnick and Irving Berlin. She is joined by Wally Harper on piano and John Burr on bass. More details!

Miss Cook was most recently seen in her usual orchestra seat at the Met, deep in appreciation of Veronica Villarroel's Butterfly. In fact, you couldn't take a step at intermission without stumbling over a diva or three. Glimpsed deep in discussion of the night's performance were veteran Cio-Cio-Sans Renata Scotto and Catherine Malfitano

La Cieca's old friend Jody Dalton, formerly the brains behind CRI Records, is now running a music initiative for The Estate Project for Artists with AIDS. He is preparing a catalog of works by composers who have died of AIDS, and is involved as well in compliling lists of other opera professionals (stage directors, conductors, singers) who have died and for whom it is generally common knowledge that the cause was AIDS. These lists will become part of a book that's being written by Patrick Moore on AIDS and the arts entitled Lights Out. Jody's page devoted to this work can be seen here

A pleasant surprise at the Met's Arabella dress rehearsal last Friday: Renee Fleming was on her good behavior in this part, with a maximum of silky tone (especially in the vital high G/A-flat area) and a minimum of swooping and scooping. It doesn't strike me that she had much of a handle on the character, but perhaps that will come. Particularly strong in support were Judith Forst (Adelaide) and Laura Aikin (Fiakermilli); Barbara Bonney looked great as Zdenko but sounded a tad hard-pressed on top. Christoph Eschenbach's conducting was mostly loud and always slow. 

Am I the only one who is annoyed and disgusted with critics' (e.g., Anthony Tommasini's) incessant harping upon the beauty of Nathan Gunn's naked chest? Can you imagine what the reaction would be if every review of, say, Denyce Graves or Renee Fleming led off with a detailed and breathless description of her cleavage? 

Look, La Cieca fully agrees that Gunn's upper body is utterly delectable. But he's not a gay porn star, after all: he's an opera singer. Of course I want a performer to look the part, and it is a boon when one has, for example, a slim, exotic-looking girl singing the role of Salome or a Byronic hunk cast as Eugene Onegin. But I am uneasy about the enjoyment of an opera singer's (or any performing artist's) looks purely for their own sake. It seems to me that Mr. Gunn is asked to exhibit his chest in just about every role he does, whether it's appropriate for the opera or not. Similarly, we see postcards of Rodney Gilfry in his Stanley Kowalski t-shirt on sale at the gift shop of the Metropolitan Opera -- a theater in which he has never sung A Streetcar Named Desire. And I think we can all recall the Times article about the NYCO's Iphigenie en Tauride couple of years back that featured a half-page photograph of seminude young men posed in a tableau suggesting anal intercourse. (Suggested caption: "Ow, who put the sand in the vaseline?") 

This kind of exploitation of these artists' undeniable sexual allure is a kind of "cheesecake" that I find incompatible with opera as a serious art form. By all means, sex belongs in opera, and we should all hope for artists who are good-looking and well-built; in an ideal world, all baritones would both sound and look as breathtaking as Mr. Gunn and Mr. Gilfry do. But opera is not about ogling pretty boys (or pretty girls), and I'm very uncomfortable with this trend toward selling opera singers as pieces of meat. 

Oh, and to get back to the more specific point: the butch, beefed-up "beauty" Anthony Tommasini drools over is not the sort of thing crusty 18th century sailors would be likely to find attractive: they had muscles of their own, after all. Surely Billy's beauty is meant to be ethereal and angelic; more traditionally "feminine" in other words. If Billy Budd looks tough and masculine (as Nathan Gunn does), then he cannot appear as "other" to the sailors on the Indomitable. And if he's not "other" then the story (based on the idea of correspondence between inner and outer beauty) makes no sense. A kickboxer's torso seems to me a very poor signifier for Christian redemption.

Our editor James dishes the divas in his regular column in LGNY, now available online.

La Cieca is sorry to report that a master class by the Anna Moffo (sponsored by the Metropolitan Opera) turned into a farce when the legendary and still very handsome diva essentially had nothing to say to the young singers she was supposed to teach. "That was fine," Moffo would murmur into the mike, "Now, who wants to sing something else?" The session, scheduled to run an hour and a quarter, ran out of material after barely 40 minutes. While the audience chatted nervously, Moffo sent her young students to ransack the backstage area for sheet music, anything to sing in order to fill out the alloted time. And the singing, except the tenor's Manon aria, was frankly nothing one would want encored. A very sad spectacle indeed, and La Cieca wonders who in the Met's education department is to blame for this fiasco. 

Quite a Halloween treat: The New Yorker's Alex Ross references our own Dawn Fatale in his review of Johanna Fiedler's new muckraking book Molto Agitato. Ross quotes a long section of Dawn's notorious take on "The Volpe Era."

Those of you who don't feel like parting with $30 for Fiedler's book may be interested to hear the major scoop therein: she outs James Levine as a monogamous heterosexual. 

Now, please understand that La Cieca has a mini-axe to grind here since in this book Fiedler quotes a line ("the artist formerly known as Maria Ewing") from parterre box without attributing it and La Cieca must say she's rather miffed. But a fair assessment of this overview of the Met's management, I would have to say, is that it is not up to much. 

The publishers must have been hoping for another "

Cinderella and Co" but Fiedler, though she certainly seems mean-spirited enough to pull off such a volume, is nowhere near the stylist Manuela Hoelterhoff is, and the "juicy" content is minimal. The thesis of this puff piece is essentially "The Met is currently at the peak of its glory. Joe Volpe can get a little testy sometimes but he is the best general manager the world has ever seen. And Levine, perhaps a trifle distant, is otherwise an utter god." 

Anyone hoping for any critical evaluation of the Met's current policies is going to be deeply disappointed. I see little evidence of original research in this book. Early chapters are obvious condensations of such standard volumes as 5000 Nights at the Opera. The years of Fiedler's tenure at the Met are sketchy and repetitive: so and so came to the Met, sang for a while, blundered, and then was never heard from again. (Singing anywhere but the Met doesn't really count.) Coverage of the later Levine/Volpe era seems to offer only minimal original research, including some softball interviews with Levine. Joan Ingpen crawls out of the woodwork long enough to depict herself as virtually omnipotent. 

Far more of the book is cribbed from contemporay newspaper and magazine articles -- which for 15 years of course Fiedler herself as the Met's press representative was in charge of spinning. I don't see why we should be expected to trust her veracity now. It's pretty easy to see which artists Fiedler still resents for making her job back then difficult, Placido Domingo chief among them. She does her best to make him look a thug and a jerk, apparently because he took offense at a solo photo op for Mirella Freni when the Met revived Don Carlo back in 1984. 

Perhaps the biggest howler in the book is Fiedler's stonewalling about the "scandals" in James Levine's private life. She claims that she interviewed several board members from the time of Levine's alleged improprieties and they "denied any payoff ever happened." But if there were any coverup, would not the Met's press representative (i.e., Fiedler hersef) be at least tangentially involved? As such her attitude seems to me at best disingenuous; I don't care to say in print what it might be at worst. Fiedler coyly refuses to discuss Levine's personal life other than to insist that he has lived with a woman for 30 years (thus strongly implying heterosexuality). Curiously she lacks this sense of discretion with just about anyone else she writes about, eagerly repeating tittle-tattle about mistresses, divorces, spouse abuse and such. 

I did get some pleasure from Fiedler's precis of the power struggles at the Met in the 1970s. John Dexter comes off well, though it does seem his philosophy solving problems with talent instead of just throwing money at them does seem to have been utterly forgotten.

Overheard during the intermission of Lyric Opera of Chicago's Otello (from an Italian opera fan): "Il signor Heppner sempre manca la voce cosi?"

La Cieca was wrong on this one: it looks like Dame Gwyneth Jones is in fact on the way to Pittsburgh for their Salome, where she will be about the only reason to see this show, what with the decrepit Maria Ewing subbing for the ankle-challenged Carol Vaness. In other news, Waltraud Meier (whose Isolde with the Chicago Symphony so dazzled a capacity audience at Carnegie Hall last weekend) is scheduled to return to the Met in Fidelio, alternating with Karita Mattila. Rosalind Plowright will make her Met debut in next season's Jenufa (second cast Kostelnicka? Grandma Burja?). And it appears that after this season, we may not see much more of Maria Guleghina in New York: after the Pavarotti Tosca this spring, her name has disappeared from future casting. Andrea Gruber will step into Nabucco; no word yet who will sing those Maddalenas in Andrea Chenier.

Word on the street has it that Opera Orchestra of New York's 2002-2003 season will include Attila (Ramey, Gruber, Casanova), Les Pecheurs de Perles (Devia, Sabbatini) and La donna del lago (Swenson, Blythe and of course lots of tenors). Watch this space for updates (remember when the Alagnas were gonna do Rondine here?)

Can it really be true that the Met has engaged Charlotte Church as Dew Fairy for a 2002-2003 revival of Hansel and Gretel? In more encouraging news, verista of choice Veronica Villaroel is jumping into three performances of the Met's Butterfly between November 24 and December 4.

The opening night of La Gran Scena's "Vera: Life of a Diva," despite a rough edge or two technically, was witty and wise as always -- and a nice big house too, especially when you consider how many rows of empty seats there are in every other theater in town these days. It was a delight to hear the "Galupe" and "Master Class" segments again after so long and La Cieca thinks the addition of the ever-bubbly Sylvia Bills really gave the second half a lift. It was also fascinating to hear how big and dark "the woice" of Vera Galupe-Borszkh sounded in the "Io son l'umile ancella," very like late-period Magda. La Cieca will return for the final performance on Sunday of this delicious Gran Scena show at Florence Gould Hall (55 East 59th Street) -- here are

more details and how to order tickets. Read what Ira Siff, alter ego of "traumatic soprano" Vera, had to say about the concept of this unique show in a parterrre box inteview a few years ago.

We have learned that Lauren Flanigan was producer Richard Jones's first choice for the role of Graefin Geschwitz in his high-profile new production of Lulu this season for the English National Opera. But, La Cieca hears, the ENO's brass vetoed Flanigan because they didn't want "too many Americans" in the show. Now, of course, they are violently kicking themselves since Flanigan's Abigaille at ENO was so spectacular a success with critics and public.

Avid observers of "the eternal progress of divadienst" (and I think you know who you are) may and should prepare for shouting from the rooftops and dancing in the streets early in 2002, when James McCourt's classic and ultimate opera novel Mawrdew Czgowchwz will reappear in print for the first time in over two decades. And La Cieca hears murmurs of more Mawrdew on the horizon, including the longed-for sequel and (tantalizingly) Czgowchwz in non-print media. (And you, my dears, will hear details as soon as they become available!)

This month in parterre box: we talk with talented and edibly cute composer Mark Adamo. Also in issue #47: reviews from Glimmerglass (dire!), predictions for the 2001 season from a gaggle of parterre box's most avid readers, and a do-it-yourself diva dressup project.

And here's even more gossip from La Cieca!


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