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Thread: Personal opera and choral listening project

  1. #1
    Commander, Assistant Conductor Fretless's Avatar
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    Personal opera and choral listening project

    So, I have always been bothered by my own prejudices and troubles getting into opera and vocal music in general. I studied a bunch of it in music school and I've played orchestrally in many arias and recitatives but not whole operas. Anyways, my close colleague got me a subscription to Opera News, and from there I'm trying to expand and appreciate. My public library has a mountain of opera and choral music so I'm starting at the top and making my way through the collection. Right now I'm going alphabetically, but I do make detours so I don't burn out on one composer. They also have many solo discs stuck in with the operas themselves. I try to pick a disc out of the Opera, Choral, and Voice sections each week/every other week (depending on time).

    So far this academic year I've heard:
    Victoria De Los Angeles--The Very Best Of...
    Dario Argento--Te Deum; From the Diary of Virginia Woolf
    Durufle--Messe "Cum Jubilo"
    John Adams--Harmonium; I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky; On the Transmigration of Souls; The Death of Klinghoffer
    Robert Ashley--Perfect Lives
    Lorraine Hunt Lieberson--Bach Cantatas BWV 82 and 199
    Marcelo Alvarez--Bel Canto
    Louis Andriessen--De Staat; De Tijd
    Milton Babbitt--An Elizabethan Sextette
    Roberto Alagna--Roberto Alagna; Nessun Dorma
    Anonymous 4--Love's Illusion; American Angels
    Angelika Kirchschlager--Bach Arias
    Franco Alfano--Cyrano de Bergerac
    Adam de la Halle--The World of Robin and Marion
    Brian Asawa--16th Century Lute Songs
    Warren Benson--Songs for the End of the World
    Eugen D'Albert--Tiefland
    Osvaldo Golijov--Ainadamar
    Marian Anderson--Schubert and Schumann lieder
    Alla Francesca--Llibre Vermell de Montserrat
    Mark Adamo--Little Women
    Rachmaninoff--The Bells

    Currently listening to: Leonardo Balada's Cristobal Colon

    I have been least impressed so far by the John Adams works, and the Argento Te Deum was a real drag as well.
    I do have some of my own discs of opera & choral--Wozzeck, three of the Ring operas, Verdi Requiem, Brahms Deutsches Requiem, St. Matthew's Passion, Penderecki St. John Passion & Utrenya, Mahler lieder, etc. I need to get to know them better, though.

    I've been putting my thoughts and reviews about these discs at this site (Rate Your Music), along with starting in on my own collection of everything else:
    http://rateyourmusic.com/~Faville
    (I don't know if it's allowed to post other sites here, remove if so)
    Sometimes I have time and motivation to write a lot, sometimes it's short notes.
    I suppose I could post them here as well, as long as people don't mind/can help me with when I'm being appallingly off the mark!
    Last edited by Fretless; Feb-14-2011 at 20:02.

  2. #2
    Commander, Assistant Conductor Chi_townPhilly's Avatar
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    Glad to see this sub-forum hasn't completely flat-lined, yet.

    Based on the works you mentioned above, it seems that your listening project has some 'prior restraint' in the form of being limited to what is available from the lending library. As is the case with many libraries, the collections favor anthologies and excerpts. Not that there's anything intrinsically wrong with that. I simply must add that if you're attempting to pursue an understanding of OPERA, it's best to absorb in in the manner that its creators intended, i.e.: one relatively uninterrupted listening session per opera. Like the 'real thing,' it's wise to allow yourself intermissions between acts- but I think you know what I mean, generally.[Purists will also claim that for the full experience, you should add the visuals via a DVD or live-performance... but I've found that as long as you're able to understand the story as it unfolds, that's not an iron-clad requirement.]

    You might find that in spite of this, you'll enjoy the excerpts more, anyway. However, you'll learn more about the point of opera (if not necessarily fully embrace it as an art-form) if you audition it in an afternoon's or evening's sitting.
    The truth that's told with bad intent
    Beats all the lies you can invent- William Blake, from Auguries of Innocence

  3. #3
    Commander, Assistant Conductor Fretless's Avatar
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    I'll try to limit the posts here to just the opera ones, since I'm picking discs from three or four sections of the catalog at a time relating to the voice. My library has what I would consider a well-rounded collection of opera.
    You're right in that I need to sit with the opera, which is of course the biggest hurdle. When I'm at home with house and family around, sitting for an hour at a time with the headphones makes me fidgety, but it can be done!
    I'm not sure why my library has some of the opera excerpt discs stuck in with the regular operas, but I suppose Classical music CDs can pose a challenge in the way of cataloging.

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    Commander, Assistant Conductor Fretless's Avatar
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    The Cristobal Colon opera was very difficult to get into. I don't seem to take well to the Spanish language in opera, yet, and find the "th" sounds rather distracting. But more so I think it was the wrong piece to start with for Leonardo Balada's music. Also, the subject matter is not terribly interesting for me. Finally, Carreras and Caballe may be superstars (one review admitted they were aging in this recording) but they had the typical massively wobbly vibratos that can make opera off-putting. "Where's the pitch?"

    I also took a listen to John Adams' "El Nino" but even though it was on the Opera shelf, it seems it's more of an oratorio. My notes on this are: "My problems with the piece seem to be that of Adams' vocal writing in general, my opinions of which aren't altered by this recording, regardless of the wealth of imagination and ingenuity behind it. His melodies for the soloists, as in his operas, completely fail to make any moving or memorable impression on me. They seem utterly random in direction and I'm constantly left wondering where the singers are finding such intensity and near-hysteria in their lines, which come across as empty wailing after a while (and don't get me started on the warbling engine-turning-over showpiece in "Shake the Heavens" which emulates Handel's lyric-painting). The instrumental writing is typical Adams and could come from any of his previous work--Shaker Loops and Harmonielehre coming to mind primarily, though it does keep my ears involved in the work. The choral writing is decent, though a lot of the religious rhythmic-chant stuff seems like it was lifted straight out of Steve Reich's The Cave, where it was done much more effectively. Every time those moments come along I want to abandon this piece and go listen to Reich's work, which, while sparser and less colorful (and much less overtly dramatic), is much more engaging; but I believe I would be in the heavy minority with that opinion."

  5. #5
    Commander, Assistant Conductor Fretless's Avatar
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    Listened to Barber's Antony and Cleopatra. I tried reading through some of the opera on piano with a piano reduction before listening to it. I can't imagine what the actual full score looks like or how anyone learns it. It took a long time to play through the vocal lines and piano portion in just the opening chorus alone, and when I finally listened to it, the music went by so fast I could hardly keep up with the page turns and still follow a line or two of what was happening. Amazing.
    Eventually I just listened. The singing was pretty good and it seems like Barber mines a lot of music out of a small amount of motifs. He has a crazy amount of modulation going on, but the performers made it sound natural and easy. Had I not looked at the score I probably would never have assumed there were so many changes going on. I still wasn't terribly interested in the story, and I think that's going to be an ongoing issue with listening to operas without visuals. But I can always supplement with YouTube clips and whatever DVDs my library has as well.

  6. #6
    Admiral of Fugues Contratrombone64's Avatar
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    Hey Fretless, my friend, it's been ages since you posted (seemingly), hope this finds you well. Looks like an interesting thread (rare here) so I'll look at it when I get more brain space, just saying "g'day" - David
    I'm not an atheist and I don't think I can call myself a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many different languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn't know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God.
    —Albert Einstein.

  7. #7
    Commander, Assistant Conductor Fretless's Avatar
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    Thanks! Yeah, looks about six weeks between posts. The teaching year has been very busy and my listening overall has been not so classical-centered.

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