Actors who sing/Singers who act

 

Are all opera singers good actors?  Sadly, no.  Nathalie Desplat. Maria Callas, Renee Flemming, are some notable singers who have been applauded for their acting skills. Interestingly, all three of those sopranos have acted outside the opera stage.  Callas played Medea in Pasolini’s film of the same name, and Desplat originally trained as an actor before realizing she also had a voice. The gorgeous Renee Flemming made her Broadway debut just last year, in a non musical, that garnered some lovely reviews for a solid comedic performance of an over the top opera singer.

Certainly there have been musical theatre performers who moved on from opera to theatre. This is the usual scenario for performers who weigh singing AND acting to be of equal import. Harve Presnell, who began as an opera singer, performed in movie musicals, like The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and Paint Your Wagon, and found critical acclaim in the third act of his life in dramatic roles; most notably, in the movie Fargo.

Marco Berti and the Burden of Success

This weekend I attended the HD Broadcast of Puccini’s Turandot. This lavish Zefferelli production has been a mainstay in the Met repertoire for almost 30 years.  It is unapologetic in its over the top treatment of the last opera Puccini wrote.  So grand is this production, that any opera singer would be forgiven for a large, over the top performance. Which is one reason why Marco Berti’s detached, low energy, distracted performance seemed so disturbingly out of place.

Someone must have told Signor Berti he only has to work when he is singing.  Why else would he hold the expression of a man looking at a bus schedule when Liu (played gloriously by Anita Hartig) is committing suicide right in front of him?

I was thinking that he was perhaps, saving himself, for the Nessun Dorma that was to come in the final act.  If that was the case, he apparently did not save enough.  He has this horrible vocal habit of hitting a lower note to bounce up to the high note, not once, not twice, but EACH AND EVERY time he hit a high note.  His Nessun Dorma was as disconnected as the rest of his performance,  and that prompted the couple sitting next to me to begin swearing.  Where is a head of cabbage when you need one?

Hey, it’s a Big Room

Performing on a massive  stage, like that of the Metropolitan Opera requires a large performance.  Subtlety does not travel beyond the pit in a venue of this size.  We tend to forgive opera singers when their gestures are exaggerated,  even if the performance journeys into the melodramatic.  Since operas are often built upon totally implausible plot lines, the singers are given the difficult task to draw the audience into a world of make believe, while delivering a vocal performance of repertoire that was written for a high level of virtuosity. It ain’t easy.

The HD broadcasts, give opera fans a close up view of the faces of the people on that stage, and THAT is a great opportunity for the audience.  We can see the eyes, the hands, the sweat on their brow.  We can breathe with them.  And while the soloists do the heavy lifting, we also see the faces of the unsung heroes of the opera stage; the chorus.

The Met chorus is a large group of completely committed, hard working, uncompromising, well trained, totally dedicated people, whose names we will never know.  When you compare these wonderful people to the snooze fest that was Marco Berti, it does make you stop and think.

 

 

 

 

 

Pearl Fishers

Going to the Metropolitan Opera is a wonderful thing.  I am happy to say that I have attended many operas in this wonderful place, and although I live close to New York, I chose to watch the HD broadcast at a local movie theatre this past weekend, and I have to say, it was a heck of a good time.  But let’s talk about the opera itself, first.

The last time the Met presented The Pearl Fishers, Caruso played the part of Nadir. That was over one hundred years ago.  Just WHY they waited so long to bring forth another production, I cannot tell you. However, it might have been worth the wait when you consider the high tech options now available to live theatre.  And, the Met took full advantage of many of these options to excellent results.  From the overture, where we see pearl divers swimming through the deep water, to the tsunami, when the deep waters devastate the village, we are treated to the very best that modern theatrical special effects can offer.

The duet between the two male leads in the Pearl Fishers, is one of the most beloved duets in operatic repertoire.  And with good reason. It is sumptuous.  Here, have a listen:

 

 

Many consider this the best recording of the duet.

The Met cast gives us Mariusz Kwiecien in the role of Zurga, and Matthew Polenazani as Nadir.  Their performance left this blogger in tears.

Nadir’s aria, is also a thing of great beauty.  Here is a performance by Nicolai Gedda.

 

Apparently, Diana Damrau was the one who encouraged the Met to bring this production (which began in London) to the Met.  Ms. Damrau was a lovely Leila, and her high notes are gorgeous. Her real life husband, Nicolas Teste played the high priest Nourabad.  (lucky girl)

 

 

Is it Over Yet?

On New Year’s Eve in 1985, I had just finished the National Tour of Camelot.  I was subletting an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen,  and my best friend Avril, came out to visit me on her way to London.  I was pregnant with my son Nick, and I was delighted to have my best friend with me at that time.

We were invited to a party at a restaurant in the Theatre District called Barrymore’s. Oh how I miss Barrymore’s!  It was a great place where theatrical types ate before curtain, after curtain, and it was comfy and convenient. It is also close enough to Time’s Square, that we could hear the insanity on that New Year’s Eve.

At one point, Avril thought it would be fun to just pop around the corner and see the million or so people who show up every year to see that ball drop. As we walked out the door, a drunken reveler fell into the front window of the  St. James Theatre, which was housing Bernadette Peters in Song and Dance at the time.  He was bleeding profusely and laughing his head off as the cops crowded around him, at which point, Avril said she had seen quite enough and was ready to go back into Barrymore’s and have dessert.

Shelly Winters was at that party, and I do not believe that I had ever seen a more depressed look on anyone’s face….ever.  I chatted with her briefly, thanking her for time that she had taken with me when I was in high school and my Drama Club came to see her in Minnie’s Boys on Broadway.  She had been told that there were theatre loving high school kids in the audience, and she told an usher to bring us down to the stage after the curtain came down. She talked with us about the show, the hard work, the joy, and she answered our questions sincerely and completely without effect.  It was a gesture of kindness that I have never forgotten.  I wanted to thank her for that, and let her know that I was profoundly moved by her generosity, and it was yet another reason why I chose to be in the profession. She seemed genuinely happy that I said that to her, and thanked ME for cheering her up.

 

I have had subsequent New Year’s Eves when I wore a face similar to that of Ms. Winter’s on that night.  I find the holiday difficult.  Sometimes the year that is coming to an end is so difficult that there is relief of its end, coupled with the unthinkable possibility that just because you bought a new calendar, there might be a continuance of the horror that  re-boots on the morning of January 1st.

Robbie Burnes seemed to know that we needed a sad little ditty to sing on this difficult evening, so he wrote Auld Lang Syne in 1788.  In a few hours, I will sing it again.  I find the song sadder and sadder as the years go by.  Since I am older,  I have simply outlived some of the people I have loved dearly.  Like Avril.

To my dear friends who are missing people this evening, I send love, and pray that I have the wherewithal to figure out if you want me to talk to you, or leave you alone.  I will sing the song for you.

We’ll take a cup o’ kindess yet, for Auld Lang Syne. 

 

 

 

 

The Once and Future King

As is usually the case, Broadway is playing host to a few London shows this season, most of them playing with large chunks, if not all,  of the original casts from the West End productions.

This weekend I decided to risk getting caught in the Christmas mobs that invade Manhattan each year, and catch the Saturday matinee of King Charles III, starring Tim Piggot-Smith in the title role of Charles.

Subtitled, “A Future History Play,”  it begins as Elizabeth II has died, and Prince Charles is now to ascend the throne. After meeting with a Labor Party Prime Minister, Charles is expected to accept a bill regarding privacy in the press. He is not happy about this, and some wickedly entertaining dialogue (and a bit of civil unrest) gets in the way of his coronation.

Tim Piggot-Smith is superb in the role of Charles, showing both strength and a bit of pouting while Margot Leicester is often hilarious as Camilla, without overplaying her role. Harry is predictably adorable as played by Richard Goulding, and William is all business in the hands of Oliver Chris.

I really loved the look of this play.  There are no ornate sets, as you might imagine for a play set inside Buckingham Palace.  The entire set is a brick wall, which curves along the back and the sides, and plays both inside and outside.  The various locations set up rather casually and the actors often go up or down the aisles. The lighting is dark and somber throughout, with some great candle lighting in several scenes that set beautifully  against the brick.  Live, brooding music is provided by a cello and an oboe.

The show is on a limited run, which began in September and is due to close at the end of January. A Sydney run of the play is due to begin in March of 2016 with Robert Powell in the role of Charles.

Unexpected Change

At the curtain call, in the middle of a standing ovation, Tim Piggot-Smith stepped forward.  I was expecting the usual Equity Fights Aids speech, but he threw a curve ball.

Usually when an understudy goes on, there is an announcement made, pre-curtain.  Sometimes, you get a little note in the Playbill as well.  At this performance, there was no such announcement.

The audience was delivering a standing ovation, when Mr. Piggot-Smith stepped forward to announce that the role of Jess (a young anti-royal who has a brief relationship with  Prince Harry) was played by an understudy, Rachel Spencer Hewitt. He explained that the actor who usually plays the role, was taken quite suddenly ill, and Ms. Spencer Hewitt sprang into action with no warning.  The audience gave her a rich round of applause, and the few audience members who were not yet standing, now stood.  The cast then turned to her, and applauded her while tears streamed down her face. Then, Mr. Piggot-Smith added that we had all just seen her Broadway debut.  At that point, I had a few tears running down my face as well. Rachel is a graduate of…you guessed it, Yale School of Drama.

Here is an ad for the London Production, which is precisely as it plays in New York.

 

 

Pulling a Shirley MacLaine

One of the most enduring  Broadway stories, is the one about Shirley MacLaine, who took over from an injured Carol Haney in The Pajama Game, and went on to be…well, Shirley MacLaine.

The Pajama Game, was Shirley MacLaine’s first Broadway show, and she was hired to sing and dance in the chorus and understudy for the much beloved, Carol Haney.  Haney broke her ankle very early in the run, and was out of the show for several weeks. During that time, MacLaine’s performance was seen by producers in New York and in Hollywood, and she was quickly signed to a Paramount contract.

In the movie, All About Eve, Ann Baxter plays Eve Harrington, a young actress who connives a sinister scheme to keep a Broadway star, played by Bette Davis out of New York so that she can go on in her place on a night when the critics are in to see the show.  In Applause, the musical version of the story, which starred Lauren Bacall in the Bette Davis role, the Broadway “gypsies” sing, “She pulled a Shirley MacLaine,” as they jealously acknowledge that she is no longer one of them.

Understudies are necessary.  I have been an understudy and I have had understudies. While I have never known or worked with an Eve Harrington, I would be lying if I said that things are always easy among actors and the person who has their own identical set of costumes just in case.  As an understudy, you don’t have the benefit of full cast rehearsals, and the idea of going on and making a mistake is terrifying. As the “overstudy” you can be concerned about the person going on and being better liked than you are in the role, which is one big reason actors are known to perform in a state of unwell, just shy of being in a coma.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Mighty Wind

Thanks to Doug,  my house mate, dear friend, and fellow artsy fartsy, we attend the Oneppo Chamber Music Series at Yale’s Morse Recital Hall at Sprague on a regular basis.  For the most part, the Oneppo series highlights String Quartets. (I still get emotional when I think of a performance of a Schubert Quartet from last February’s Danish Quartet performance.)

But this past Tuesday night, the Imani Winds sat where strings usually sit, and presented a concert of eclectic, daring, mostly 20th century music, that was so deeply felt, those Danish guys looked positively stoic  by comparison.

Every member of the quintet contributes to either a completely original piece, or an arrangement of an existing piece, and each member spends some time at the microphone talking about the piece we are about to hear.  I cannot tell you how refreshing this is. And since each member has an interesting personality and a sense of fun, the entire evening is completely entertaining.

One of the highlights of the evening  Jonathan Russell’s pared down arrangement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade, arranged specifically for Imani, highlighted the virtuosic talents of each member of the quintet, and accomplished what you always want a transcription to achieve by letting us hear the inner harmonies of the piece, which are sometimes harder to hear with a full orchestra.

The quintet did a terrific job on the Heitor Villa-Lobos  piece, Quintette en forme de Choros.  I like Villa-Lobos, even though  Igor Stravinsky once said,  “Why is it, that whenever I hear a piece of music I hate, it always turns out to be a piece by Villa-Lobos?  (ouch, Igor)  Over the years, I have had the joy of performing his work.  My high hum to an A-flat allowed me to get picked often to sing his Aria Number Five (sadly, never with the eight celli, but with classical guitar, thanks to the Segovia transcriptions.)  Imani really found a sweet spot with this piece, and it was my favorite of the evening.

The group plays with great passion, and they are committed to present an ethnic groove.  Their encore was a fun, rich piece, that gave more than a nod to Hanukkah, and highlighted clarinetist Miriam Adam beautifully.

Imani is based out of New York, and travels extensively. They have recently returned from an Australian tour.

 

 

 

Baroque at Battell

Yesterday at Yale’s Battell Chapel, I had entirely too much fun, at the community sing through of Messiah, by Handel.

Battell Chapel was built in 1876, and it seats 1100 people, including the balcony, and yesterday, that joint was packed!  Packed with singers of all ages, proficiency, and musicianship.

The absolutely wonderful Yale Symphony Orchestra, was conducted by a few different conductors, from the Yale School of Music, and the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, as were the soloists.

If you missed it, put it on you calendar for next year. Even if you just go to listen to it.  I guarantee you will leave Battell with your feet a few feet off the ground.

 

For a schedule of  this weeks musical offerings at Yale, go to:

http://music.yale.edu/concerts/

For other arts events happening this week go to:

http://artscalendar.yale.edu/

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rub-a-Dub-Dub

Last evening, the Yale Cabaret opened its latest offering; the world premiere of the English translation of the play, Boris Yeltsin, by the Portuguese playwright Mickael de Oliveira. This play is a re-telling of Aeschylus’ tragedy, Oresteia, set in Portugal in the 1990s.  I was not aware of this going in, so when Brittany Spears’ song, Hit Me Baby One More played during our dinner hour, I was, to say the least, confused. I was also curious about the bath tub set, which sat just across from our seats, but I figured that out during the play, when two naked men hopped in for a bath and a murder.

And I got to thinking.

Everyone into the Pool

When my son was a freshman in high school in New Jersey, we went into New York as often as we could to catch the Broadway offerings.  Perhaps it was because my son went to Catholic school, that he turned bright red, and looked very nervous, when, during the production of Rent, the character of Maureen dropped her pants to expose her derriere. He was shocked. Nick had never seen a person in person take off clothing before, and I am sure he didn’t think his first time would be on a Broadway stage.

Right after that, we went to see the stage adaptation of The Graduate. He had a similar, although somewhat greater reaction, when Kathleen Turner took her bath towel off to expose the audience to her entire nakedness, which was staged to expose just her side view. The look of shock on his face was accompanied by a small side grin, and an embarrassed roll of the eyes.

The very next play we saw, was the excellent production of Mary Zimmerman’s play, Metamorphoses. In this production, when Narcissus falls in love with his reflection in a pool, he does so in complete, full-frontal nudity.  It was at this point that my son and I, realizing we had just hit the trifecta of consecutive Broadway skin exposure,  just looked at each other and started giggling.

Like my son, I was in high school the first time I saw nudity on stage, when my high school Drama Club went into New York for the day, to see a matinee of Hair. Martin Landau and his then wife, Barbara Bain were sitting in front of me with their kids. (Mission Impossible was an immensely popular TV show at that time, and Landau and Bain were its main stars.  Starstruck,  I spent much of that performance watching them watch the show.)

Diane Keaton, who had her Broadway debut in that production of Hair chose not to disrobe for that scene, even though the actors were paid a whopping $50 extra a week if they did.

As relatively progressive as male nudity is on the live stage, it is still somewhat taboo on film. Full frontal female nudity is an accepted norm in films, but men are often discreetly covered by designer sheets or a decorative pillow. Is it because female directors are still a very small minority?  In  1993, Australian director Jane Campion filmed Harvey Keitel in a nude scene in The Piano, and let’s just say, that did not catch on. More than twenty years later, people made such a big deal about the brief view of Ben Affleck’s manhood in the 2014 film, Gone, Girl, you would have thought he had just signed on for the touring company of Oh Calcutta!

When I saw that production of Hair, back when I was in high school, I knew then that I wanted to be an actress. I wondered what I would do if I was asked to do a nude scene on stage or in a film. I am ever so glad that was a decision I never had to make.

 

The Yale Cabaret offers delightful dinners before the show at the early performances, and small bites for the late shows. One of the nicest things about the past two shows I have attended at the Cabaret, were the people with whom we shared a table.  It is a wonderful thing to see a show, and then when the lights come on, look across the table at another pair of eyes and have a discussion about it. The conversation is fresh, and the memory of the play is so recent, you are still working it out. Boris Yeltsin is playing  through the 5th of December.