Guest Post: Dane Palmer “In Defense of Pop: Ke$ha, Chiptune, and why you should listen to the radio”

 

Dane Palmer

Dane Palmer is a Boston-based marimbist, bike mechanic, and theater technician.  Recently graduating from Boston Conservatory, he has performed all over, most recently in Shenzhen, China. Dane is currently commissioning pieces from many sources, all based on showing the commonalities between popular music and classical.

“I do think it’s important that people who profess to really be interested in music….to expose themselves to the width and breadth of the music available to them, and in this day and age that’s everything.” -Chris Thile-

I have a day job. I’ve spent the last 5 years paying my bills as a freelance theatre technician and bike mechanic in Boston.  Every day working with people who don’t listen to music that we define as ‘intellectually stimulating’. We would get to work and turn on the radio. I spent a long time fighting this by plugging myself into my phone and listening to what I wanted to listen to. But after a while this became anti-social and boring. So I unplugged, and started living with what was on the radio that day. After a while, I found myself analyzing whatever was playing and noticed there was a lot more to pop music than I had been told.

The biggest realization I had was that 99% of the time you’ll hear pop music it’s recorded. This means it’s the same every time. But it also means that every single sound is permanent. The performer or producer is saddled with the weight of this performance being concrete. One of the things that I like the most about performing live is that as soon as I play a note, I can’t get it back. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong. But they don’t have this luxury. Now they also have the luxury of being able to try as many times as they want until they get it right. Which just means that they have no reason for it not to be perfect. That just seems insane to me. The only thing that’s acceptable in the popular music world is perfection.

I tried to discuss this with friends and classmates. As soon as I mentioned ‘pop music’ in any capacity, they turned off. They would stop listening and thinking and participating at all. I’d ask their opinion on different artists and they would have never heard of songs that have hit number one on charts all over the world.

I’m going to very briefly show you some of the thought behind a song that many of my colleagues consider to be a horrible crime against music. And explain where it all came from. Some terms you may need to know for any of this to make sense:

Chiptune- Here’s an example of chiptune style. (credit to Trey Frey. Check him out. He’s awesome.)

8-bit : a computer architecture which was used to make early video games on systems like Super Nintendo and Gameboy. Chiptunes were originally written using these early computers and today the sound is emulated in much more complex programs that recreate the restrictions that these early computers had.

Synthesizer : A sound creating device often times built to look and play like a piano. All it does is synthesize sounds with timbral parameters created by the musician. I will shorten this word to it’s common name of ‘synth’.

Kesha’s song “Tik Tok” is heavily influenced by a style of music called chiptune. If you don’t know what chiptunes are think Gameboy or Super Nintendo. The song starts off with her singing over a very standard chiptune sound that is acting as the chord structure and the bass line at the same time. It’s very simple, but it’s job is to show the key and create a rhythmic opposition to the melody line. Then starting at ~00:17 the drums come in. Still very simple (just bass drum and snare) but this is very typical in a chiptune song, and Kesha follows chiptune rules extensively. The synth notes are inverted to add a sense of movement upward and create a growing sense of excitement. As the chorus starts, the synth sound changes slightly to add more body and and depth to the sound. The original sound still can be heard in the background helping to fill out the sound. Hi-hat is also added to have more rhythmic drive going forward.

So far we have 6 layers. Bass synth, mid-range synth, bass drum, hi-hat, and 2 layers of vocals. One of the biggest restrictions of chiptunes is that they can only have 8 layers of sounds (chiptune is derived from an 8-bit computer system. 8-bit = 8 sounds).

The bridge takes a lot of these layers away, using only a synth sound that is much more rounded than the initial synth sound, very quiet hi-hat, and vocals. Eventually adding in two more layers of a bass drum and an arpeggiated synth in the background.

The final chorus uses the same six instruments as the original choruses, but also adds the arpeggiated synthesizer and another vocal layer acting as a descant in the background of the main vocals.

This is a very quick and dirty analyzation of how and why Kesha uses the sounds she does and how her layering is influenced by chiptunes and 8-bit music. There are many other rules and constraints she is following, along with many reasons she chooses the sounds that she used, but I’ll save that for a later time.

Just for comparison’s sake, here is an chiptune exclusive version of Tik Tok posted by ‘FrankJavCee’ on youtube. You can easily hear how the sounds in Kesha’s version are almost identical to the sounds that chiptunes are able to make.

This explanation is not to make you like the song. Or to make you like Kesha. It’s just to show that there is a reason to listen and try to understand every genre of music. No music is beneath anybody. It’s rather eye opening to be able to pull the same amount of care and construction out of a Kesha song as I would pull from a composed academic work. The biggest differences are usually where the intellectual emphasis is placed.

I like to think that gaining this knowledge of styles of popular music, and incorporating it into programming concerts and recitals is a way to get new audience members in the door. By applying culturally relevant rules and ideas, we have a chance to make music that is culturally relevant again.

I’ll leave you with a video made by Chris Thile, a mandolin specialist who has performed with artists as diverse as Yo-Yo Ma and Bela Fleck. The quote at the beginning of this post is from this video. He is asked to talk about his opinions on the way that audiences respond to different genre’s of music, and how that affects him as a performer.

Other works to check out:

Penelope by Sarah Kirkland Snider (on spotify)

Dance tracks by Steve Mackey (on spotify)

Behind the Scenes of Werther: Massenet, French opera composer extraordinaire

For my final post on the history behind the stunning opera, Werther, and our new and innovative production, Les Lettres de Werther, I would like to take you on a journey through the life of the composer, Jules Massenet!  I have to say, it was difficult to track down reliable information about Monsieur Massenet and the more I read, it became clearer as to why.  Massenet was just a good guy.  He wasn’t surrounded by controversy.  He didn’t suffer through poverty.  And he just sort of kept to himself.  He was just a good dude who wrote sublime music.

I am Massenet and I am judging you.

So, just to give you the sort of key points, I’ll start from the very beginning (a very good place to start).

 

  • Born on May 12th, 1842, into a commercial family in the provinces of France
  • Followed a very typical progression for French composers at the time and entered the Paris Conservatoire at at 10, where he studied piano and solfege
  • Later moved to Italy where he won the Prix de Rome (1863) for his cantata David Rizzio
  • While in Italy, he met his soon-to-be-wife, Louise-Constance “Ninon” de Gressy.  They were married in 1866, and their only child, Juliette, was born in 1868

    Massenet with his other companion. His dog.
  • His first opera, Le Grand’ Tante, premiered in 1867
    • Not particularly well-received; one reviewer said Massenet was better suited to be a symphonist.  But this speaks to his compositional style of “sweeping and sensuous melodies” and almost Wagnerian instrumentation, at times.
  • When the Franco-Prussian (or Franco-German) war broke out in 1870, Massenet served in the National Guard
  • Following the war, Massenet’s career moved forward, but not strictly opera
    • Le Roi de Lahore- opera- written in 1877.  Explores a very popular theme of opera at the time; religion and romantic love.
    • Incidental music is gaining more popularity
  • He also gained his seat at the Paris Conservatoire at this time, where he taught other well-known composers like Reynaldo Hahn and Marc-Antoine Charpentier.  He stayed at the Conservatoire for over 18 years.
  • Hériodiade premiered in 1879- a less controversial operatic version of the story of Salome and John the Baptist
  • March of 1882- Massenet began work on one of his most successful and well-known operas, Manon.  It was originally written as an opéra- comique (which, is a false cognate, this does NOT mean comic opera; it is an opera with spoken dialogue and arias)
    • The success of Manon gave Massenet the financial freedom to compose without restraint.
    • Manon, “confirmed Massenet’s now unchallenged position as the leading opera composer of his generation”
  • Le Cid (written in 1884, premiered in 1885)- a grand opera based on the “tragicomendy” by Pierre Corneille
  • In 1885, Massenet began work on Werther, the opera on which we are truly focused.
    • Interestingly, Massenet actually traveled to Wetzlar, where Goethe had conceived The Sorrows of Young Werther
    • While he didn’t compose exclusively in Wetzlar, it did provide a tremendous amount of inspiration and the push that Massenet needed to complete the opera
    • Werther received its premier in Vienna in 1892
      • It was first turned down by the Opéra-Comique because they preferred not to stage tragedies

        Werther
  • Esclarmonde was Massenet’s next endeavor.  The title role in this was composed with 22-year old American soprano, Sybil Sanderson, in mind.
    • Massenet composed a few operas for Miss Sanderson
    • This was perhaps his most “Wagnerian” work

      Sybil Sanderson as Esclamonde. She was apparently quite the hottie at the time.
  • Amadis was his next opera but this was not premiered until almost 10 years after he died.
  • Le Mage premiered in 1891 and was similar to Aida in plot
    • contained large crowd scenes and ballet
    • one of his least successful operas
  • After traveling to Vienna for the premier of Werther, Massenet found his inspiration for his next opera in Anatole France’s sensational Thaïs
  • Thaïs is again focused on religion and romantic love, following the story of a priest who falls for a prostitute.  Had its premier in 1894 with Sybil Sanderson singing the title role
  • His compositional output was incredible during this time.  Le Portrait de Manon premiered in May, two months after Thaïs, followed by La Navarraise in June.  And, both Grisélidis and Cendrillon were completed by the end of 1895.
  • Cendrillon… or Cinderella!
  • In 1896, the head of the Paris Conservatoire passed away, prompting Massenet to leave his post.
  • The Grove Encyclopedia had this to say of Massenet’s style and resistance to change:
    • “Although he had absorbed the Wagnerian ethos as far as he felt it to be useful, he was untouched by new trends emergine in the 1890s from Russia, Vienna, and on his very doorstep in PAris.  Few would have expected him to change direction as he approached the age of 60, nor did he.”
  • Sadly, Massenet struggled and lost his battle to abdominal cancer on August 13th, 1912.  He was 70 years old.

From my readings, Massenet was often criticized for being overly-sentimental or unimaginative.  But if you examine the time in which his career was at it’s apex and when he began to slow down from a compositional standpoint, he was fairly innovative for his day.  And, like any respectable musician, he had a style and stuck to it.  I mean, I can’t be mad about that.  I hate it when I listen to the debut album of a band and love it and then the come out with something completely different for their follow-up.  Can anyone say “sell out”?!

 

Massenet wrote over 30 operas in his 70 years, not to mention, a wealth of instrumental music and song.  He, “lacked all trace of abrasiveness or aggression that we have come to expect from great composers” and wasn’t, “dishonest, nor scheming nor grasping”.  Because of his great success, he was widely envied which might explain why many accused him of being “unadventurous”; they were most likely just jealous of his success.  Debussy once said in La Revue blanche,

“…It is well-known how his music is vibrant with fleeting sensations, little bursts of feeling and embraces that we wish would last forever.  The harmonies are like the arms, the melodies like the napes of necks.  We gaze into the ladies’ eyes, dying to know their thoughts…” (The Faber Book of Opera, 348)

 

He was known to rise early, saying, “save your mornings for composing or orchestration without waiting for inspiration.”  He would complete incredible amounts of work very quickly; the orchestration for La Navarraise, for example, was completed in 9 days… and was 257 pages in length.  And for such a high volume of work, his scores are apparently remarkably neat and almost diary-like, with notes about the daily events or weather often scribbled in the margins.

 

Massenet was a simple man with a good heart.  He hated public speaking and never regarded himself a writer unless it came to his colleagues and family.  In fact, it has been noted that he would only give speeches when called to deliver funeral eulogies for his loved ones.  While mildly morbid and depressing, it just shows what a stand up guy he was.

 

I will leave you with this quote from the Grove Encyclopedia:

“Few would challenge the claim of Werther to be Massenet’s masterpiece, a work in which intense personal feeling is expressed in a modern chromatic language, touching on the sentimental at times, and crafted with immense skill…The orchestration is masterly… and the harmonic style is intensely powerful…”

Les Lettres de Werther is a beautiful distillation of an opera that is arguably Massenet’s greatest work.  This incredibly rich and poignant amalgamation of The Sorrows of Young Werther and Massnet’s music make for an intoxicating and thrilling opera.   This is opera at it’s best.  Do not miss it.

Les Lettres de Werther

 

 

Behind the Scenes of Werther: The Life and Times of Goethe

Today marks day two of the history of Les Lettres des Werther, an informative, yet casual series on the events and people behind this glorious work of art.

 

Today, I’d like to talk about the novel. Werther (the opera by Massenet, for clarity) is based on the epistolary novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. I am not ashamed to admit that I had absolutely no clue what “epistolary” meant and resorted to using Google to assist. An epistolary novel is “a novel written as a series of documents. The usual form is letters, although diary entries, newspaper clippings and other documents are sometimes used.” Bam. Fact number one. Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther is an epistolary novel. Take the word epistolary and save it for a fancy dinner party. It’s bound to impress someone.

 

The very handsome man himself… Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

 

To get more information about Goethe, I enlisted the help of two very knowledgeable professors from my alma mater, Shepherd University. Dr. David Gonzol and the lovely Miss Brooke Evers were very kind to provide me with some very poignant information on Goethe.

Here are some of the important take-aways from their history lesson on Goethe:

From the lovely Miss Evers, who is a Fulbright Scholar and spent time studying in Vienna (so she’s definitely well qualified to speak about Goethe!):

  • Goethe was true “Renaissance Man.” He was extremely intelligent and inquisitive in many different fields, including science (biology, barometrics, color theory), theology, social/political thought, and of course literature.
  • Goethe wrote Werther in 1774, and it was this work that is said to have truly charged the Romantic period. The book was an overnight sensation, and it became all the rage to dress and behave as Werther the character did (“Werther Fever”) — even so far that it sparked a rage of suicides across Europe. (Napoleon is said to have loved the book so much that he carried it on his person at all times and read it at least seven times. It actually is a very good read (and not long!) if you are ever up for it.)
  • It is semi-autobiographical Lawren chiming in here, Goethe apparently had a relationship with a married woman by the name of Charlotte Buff. According to Wikipedia (the most accurate source… not,) “The outer shape of the work’s plot is widely taken over from what Goethe experienced during his Wetzlar time with Charlotte Buff and her fiancé, Johann Christian Kestner as well as from the suicide of the author’s friend Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem; in it, Goethe made a desperate passion of what was in reality a hearty and relaxed friendship.”  There’s a movie called “Young Goethe In Love”… got a 6.2 rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  It’s probably terrible.
  • Goethe was disgusted by the public’s obsession with Werther (calling it a “sickness”) and, I believe, even to some degree regretted having written the novel later on.
  • He’s notorious for having many complicated relationships along the way. I think there are a total of 8 known major-ish affairs with women throughout his life?
  • Otherwise, he was himself musical — played piano/harpsichord, factored music into all of his major literary works, and loved the opera, especially Mozart. He said: “He who does not love music does not deserve to be called a human being; he who merely loves it is only half a human being; but he who makes music is a whole human being.” Quite the compliment for those of us musicians!
  • Goethe also valued the individual, the Mensch, fitting in with the change in social thought at that time (and perhaps contributing to it.)
  • He expressed himself emotionally, but valued personal restraint — it was the Romantics who revered him who took emotional expression to the extreme.
  • Also, he was interested in our natural origins, evident in his interest in researching and reviving folk poetry and music (there is often a folk-style element to his poetry) his scientific studies, his love of nature, and contributions to revival of Ancient Greece in elements of German culture.
  • Elements of his style:
    • Characteristics of Poetry
      • Lyric poetry, folk-style –– rhyme scheme, expresses feelings; use of folk poetry – strophic, simple, etc.
      • Extremely musical –Use of vowel colors  (“Word-tone images” –Sams)
      • Imagery
      • Everyday language- elevated into beautiful poetryVoice of the Individual
      • Phrasal freedom within metric structure- Phrasing not bound to meter, and yet it provides a structure;creates a “solemn prose”
      • Symbolism and signs
      • Romantic subjects: love, nature, longing
      • Draws on personal life experiences and thoughts
      • Doesn’t translate well– Eric Sams: “…Despite Goethe’s transcendent genius and deserved renown his poetry is so resistant to translation as to be all but inaccessible to English-speaking readers or listeners.  This is because the very qualities that make it so sweetly or sharply savory in its native idiom may often taste insipid for alien tongues.  The simple words remain, but their subtle and significant blends are all too easily lost

Dr. Gonzol was very kind to provide this highlight on another of Goethe’s works, Faust. He says,

“Germane to the whole Goethe question is this observation by Dr. Djikolngar Maouyo; he was at the University of Maryland at Baltimore, Department of Physiology, in 2004. He said, “One’s behavior is determined by one’s philosophy, and one’s philosophy is determined by one’s theology.” That is true of any age and culture and explains a great deal. Since Faust evinces a theology of salvation by being pretty good–even a mere wanting to be good–not by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross–a new philosophy has to be found, and Faust (and Goethe) took pains (lots of lumps, I am sure) to find a new (life-) philosophy and new actions. The other Romantics took to this, even Mendelssohn to a degree, though he became a strong, truly believing Christian. Things really changed in the 1800s–among the upper classes, the most. Why else, when operas used to be about heroes or heroines (there’s Cleopatra in Handel’s Giulio Cesare, absolutely dazzling in her multiple-sharp keys), would a show celebrate “a country girl, gay, pretty, and thoughtless,” as the Victor Book tells it (p. 193)? What an odd celebration! It paves the way for James Dean, and even what The New York Times in 2004 scathingly termed the “inexplicable rage” (talk about pointless) of Metallica.”

 

So there you have it. Goethe was a pretty radical dude whose life was colorful, rich, and just as messy and complicated as anyone else! Knowing this information about Goethe has helped me to understand Werther in a much more intimate way; Werther was just a man (in essence, he is Goethe). He just wanted what we all want; to be loved. I think we can all learn a lesson from Goethe. Instead of killing ourselves over unrequited love, we should be a little more sensible and write a novel about it instead. Perhaps we will become famous and spark a literary movement in our honor. Or maybe we’ll just continue to live our lives and understand that we are not alone and things do get better.

 

This is a guess as to how Werther would be in modern day. #genius

 

Thank you to Dr. Gonzol and Brooke Evers for providing your very thorough and pertinent knowledge for this post. Representing Shepherd University! It sure is great to be a Shepherd Ram.

 

Please keep your eyes peeled for my next entry on Jules Massenet, the man behind the music!

Behind the Scenes of Werther: Romanticism and La Belle Époque

Since we are getting ready to launch into tech week for our extraordinary production of Les Lettres des Werther, I thought it would be appropriate to give all of our lovely readers a little history lesson. Womp womp. If you are anything like me, I automatically have the urge to yawn when I hear the word “history”. My body can’t control it. It just happens. But, in my adult life, I’m finding that learning about what’s happened in the past can be extremely useful, especially when it comes to art. I have found that knowing a little bit about the creator of a piece of art or the history of what that time period was like can help you understand the art better. And, with opera, the more you understand, the more you can appreciate the piece. So… let me just give you the down low on this amazing work. Also, full disclosure here, I am by no means a historian. I am unabashedly using sources such as Wikipedia (my former professors would annihilate me for this), but to be fair, I also cracked open a few other very scholarly texts such as my History of Western Music text (this thing has been opened more in the past few days than it was during my entire career in undergrad), The Faber Book of Opera, and the Grove Encyclopedia of Music. So, while Wikipedia isn’t the best source, I’m supplementing with some pretty impressive scholarly texts.

 

In this entry, I plan to focus on three areas; Romanticism in literature and music, and the  La Belle Époque.

 

Historical context for the romantic movement:

  • Industrial Revolution is in full swing by now
  • The middle class was rising throughout the world.  Composers especially benefited from this because more people were attending their concerts!
  • The French Revolution (1789-1799)… yikes.  Began and ended before Romanticism really took hold but imagine the impact it had on French culture…

 

Let us first talk about Romanticism in literature.  According to the Encyclopedia Britannica it is an, ” attitude or intellectual orientation that characterized many works of literature, painting, music, architecture, criticism, and historiography in Western civilization over a period from the late 18th to the mid-19th century.”  Well, I know from what time period it originated.  But what IS it?  As with most movements in art, romanticism can be seen as a reaction to the neoclassic movement.  Where neoclassicism is neat and tidy, romanticism is messy and complicated.  That is not to say that classic art isn’t complicated.  It just maybe wasn’t as emotionally charged as romantic art.

 

Some key features of romanticism include but are not limited to; emphasis on the individual, the subjective, the irrational, the imaginative, the personal, the spontaneous, the emotional, the visionary, and the transcendental (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/508675/Romanticism).  Themes of nature, the supernatural, beauty, emotion, nationalism were also prevalent in the literature of this movement.  Other authors associated with the Romantic movement are Mary Shelley , William Wordsworth, Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Brontë sisters.

definitely a tear jerker

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther is considered an early romantic work, published in 1774.  Goethe did not consider himself a part of the romantic writer but his writing definitely exhibits symptoms of it.  Take his poem, Heidenröslein (Heather Rose)

 

Once a boy a Rosebud spied,
Heathrose fair and tender,
All array’d in youthful pride,–
Quickly to the spot he hied,
Ravished by her splendour.
Rosebud, rosebud, rosebud red,
Heathrose fair and tender!

Said the boy, “I’ll now pick thee,
Heathrose fair and tender!”
Said the rosebud, “I’ll prick thee,
So that thou’lt remember me,
Ne’er will I surrender!”
Rosebud, rosebud, rosebud red,

Heathrose fair and tender!
Now the cruel boy must pick
Heathrose fair and tender;
Rosebud did her best to prick,–
Vain ’twas ‘gainst her fate to kick–
She must needs surrender.
Rosebud, rosebud, rosebud red,
Heathrose fair and tender!

 

Interpret as you like, but you cannot refute the images of nature and beauty present in just this poem alone.  There are hundreds more where that came from!  But, there will be more on Goethe in an upcoming post!

 

Let us move on to the musical side of things.  There is some disagreement as to when romanticism truly became apparent in music.  Beethoven is arguably one of the earliest composers of the romantic era, though most would qualify him as a composer of the classical era.  Author E.T.A Hoffman argues that the music of Beethoven (and even Haydn and Mozart) conveys, “the monstrous and immeasurable,” a very romantic notion.  It wasn’t until the late 19th century that the true periodization of romantic music came along, coinciding with the new music discipline of musicology.  Guido Adler, one of the early proponents of musicology believed, “Beethoven and Franz Schubert [were] transitional but essentially Classical composers, with Romanticism achieving full maturity only in the post-Beethoven generation of Frédéric Chopin, Robert Schumann, Berlioz, and Franz Liszt” (Wikipedia, “Romanticism).

 

Romantic music is marked harmonies and chord progressions that were more daring, unusual, and unexpected.   Composers bid adieu to the typical I-V-I progressions and began exploring more colorful harmonies.  Programmatic music became very popular; that is, music that intended to evoke certain imagery or tell a specific story.  A great example of this is Má vlast (My homeland)  by Smetana.   In this six movement work, images of Smetana’s home country, Czechoslovakia, are evoked.  One of the classic examples that I fondly remember from my music history class is The Moldau, written to evoke the image of the river.  Smetana said,

“The composition describes the course of the Vltava, starting from the two small springs, the Cold and Warm Vltava, to the unification of both streams into a single current, the course of the Vltava through woods and meadows, through landscapes where a farmer’s wedding is celebrated, the round dance of the mermaids in the night’s moonshine: on the nearby rocks loom proud castles, palaces and ruins aloft. The Vltava swirls into the St John’s Rapids; then it widens and flows toward Prague, past the Vyšehrad, and then majestically vanishes into the distance, ending at the Labe”

Again, the general themes of romanticism (nature, imagery, beauty)are still present, even in the music.

 

Last but not least, let us talk briefly about La Belle Époque (The Beautiful Era).  As previously mentioned, France was recovering from the very bloody French Revolution as the romantic movement began to take hold.  This is important to keep in mind for a couple of reasons; while the Belle Époque began over 70 years after the French Revolution, it marked a “golden age” for France, and it was during this time that Jules Massenet began writing music.  Beginning in 1871 and ending with World War One, “It was also a period of stability that France enjoyed after the tumult of the early years of the French Third Republic, beginning with France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, the Paris Commune, and the fall of General Georges Ernest Boulanger. The defeat of Boulanger, and the celebrations tied to the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris, launched an era of optimism and affluence. ” (Wikipedia, “Belle Époque”).   Feel free to read more about what happened to France between 1799 and 1871.  Mostly, it’s just a lot of political turmoil, Napoleon, and revolutions.  I would have to read way more in order to actually talk about this with any real authority and even then, I’d probably screw it up.  So… go find a book and read it if you’re really curious.

 

It would greatly exceed the length of just one post to truly go into detail about the great artists that were a part of this era but just to name a few, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, Mucha, and Monet all rose to prominence during this time.  Art Nouveau (a personal favorite), became a stylistic smash hit, beginning in France and extending to many other countries.  Salon music became very fashionable, with many artists composing mélodies, or short pieces to be sung and accompanied usually on the piano.  Composers like Erik Satie, Claude Debussy,  Gabriel Fauré, and Camille Saint-Saëns and his pupil, Maurice Ravel, all came out of the Belle Époque era.

 

Alphonse Mucha- Art Nouveau

 

Suffice it to say that the Belle Époque was a good time to be a musician, or any artist for that matter.  People cared about the arts.  Art, music, and literature were all highly regarded.  Concerts were well attended.  With all this in mind, stay tuned for another history lesson.  The subject of my next post is Johann Goethe himself.  Get ready.  He was a pretty interesting guy!

 

Behind the Scenes of Werther: An interview with costume designer Amelia Fitch

Today’s blog post is the first in a series of posts centered around Boston Opera Collaborative’s upcoming production of Les Lettres de Werther.  If you haven’t already heard about this exciting new production, stay tuned for upcoming posts about the production, the guest artists involved, and other magnificent facets of the show!

 

We are very fortunate to have the very talented Amelia Fitch joining us as our costume designer.  Amelia is a senior at Smith College where she studies costume design.  Ms. Fitch was very kind to answer a few questions for us about the challenges of being a costume designer, ideas for Werther, and some beautiful renderings of the costumes we can expect to see on stage!

 

1. First and foremost, what made you decide to pursue costume design?

Ever since I was a little girl I absolutely loved playing dress up. I was the kid who insisted on wearing her Glinda the Good Witch Costume to the movie theater. I think I just always knew that I wanted to work with clothing and textiles. I am drawn to costume design as opposed to fashion design because of the relative lack of rules, or more so that the rules change with each movie and play you get to design. Costume design is not about looking in or fashionable, it’s about translating feelings from written words into an outfit, and I love the opportunity to get a little weird that that provides.

2. What are some challenges of costume design?

Personally I find that creating renderings (drawings or paintings of a characters costume design) can be challenging. Although I have always loved sewing and working with textiles it has taken me a very long time to understand sketching and painting. I have character renderings from a few years ago that are so cringe worthy, and I feel like I still have so much more to learn. I think the most frustrating part of it for me is that I have all these crazy ideas and images in my head and then I have to get my hand to translate them onto a one dimensional page, it can take me hours to do one rendering but it’s completely worth it.

3. Which aspects of it do you enjoy the most?

I love working with fabric, especially hand sewing and dying. There is something so great about making a flat piece of fabric into a three-dimensional garment.  I also love the research process when you are trying to figure out what world, decade, style, etc…. that a play lives in. The Internet is awesome for this but there’s something about leafing through books and magazines that is always fun. I especially love old fashion magazines! The clothes are all gorgeously tailored and their fashion advice is very, very strange.

4. Tell us a little about the costumes for Werther; inspiration, period, juicy details!

The costume design for Werther is based of the silhouettes and textiles of the clothing people wore in the late 18th and early 19th century, however the costumes will incorporate modern elements; for example, fitted jeans and boots instead of breeches. During the 1780’s (when Werther takes place) a fascinating shift was happening in what was considered fashionable (particularly for women). The tightly laced bodices and heavily embroidered brocades of the early 18th century were abandoned for a much looser, classical silhouette. Loose empire waist gowns made out of gauzy material became popular for women, and simple yet perfectly tailored linen clothing became popular for men. Personally I find this to be an incredibly sexy time period, as people were dressing to allow their true form to show.

by Amelia Fitch
by Amelia Fitch
by Amelia Fitch
by Amelia Fitch

Before this point it was thought that a main way to express yourself was through your clothing, there was no sense of individuality as social decorum and status dictated what you wore. This shift in clothing coincides with a shift of individuality that was also happening at this time, the idea of having a sense of self became popular and important. In a way this more stark and natural way of dressing represented the fact that you wanted your inner self to transcend what you were wearing. I feel like these costumes will add to the tragic romance of Werther, and the soul bearing nature of the piece.

 

5. Is there a show that you’d love to design the costumes for?  If so, what is it and why?

There are so many wonderful plays out there it’s hard to choose! I guess a play I’ve been thinking about lately is Freak Show by Carson Kreitzer. I would absolutely love to design costumes for this play. I’ve always been drawn to the slightly grotesque aspects of circuses, and I feel like this play takes that idea to a whole different level.

6.What have been some of your favorite shows that you’ve worked on and why?

This past summer I worked designing costumes for a children’s theater (New Century Theatre Kids), which was a great experience. It is not every day you get to make a grown man dress like a Chihuahua. The theatricality of it was really fun to work with. Generally when you’re producing a show for young kids to watch, everything has to be heightened and over the top, something you don’t always get to do in more adult centered theater.

7. Do you have a favorite era or style?

I am not sure if this counts, but Isabella Blow has always been a great inspiration. She was such a fearless dresser (her motto was “Haud Muto Factum” – “nothing happens by being mute”).

 

Here are some more beautiful renderings by Amelia.  Thank you so much Amelia!  We can’t wait to see your designs in action on stage!

 

by Amelia Fitch
by Amelia Fitch
By Amelia Fitch
By Amelia Fitch
by Amelia Fitch
by Amelia Fitch

 

 

Making a Case for Opera

Lovely Opera House

 

Opera, in its earliest form, was a means of entertainment.  That is not to say that there weren’t other objectives in the writing and performance of opera.  But, to put it simply; today, we go to the movies, in the 1780’s, you went to the opera.  Sadly, the rise of technology has led to a decline in live performance.  Opera companies are declaring bankruptcy while companies like Pixar are breaking box office records with enormous ticket sales.  As a young artist, I have been faced with this question; why does opera matter?  Why does an art form that really reached its pinnacle hundreds of years ago still matter in a world wrought with technology today?  Ironically enough, I stumbled upon an article on The Guardian with this very poignant observation:

“It offers us a reflection of who we are, how we relate to others, and what it means, collectively and individually, to be human. Opera performed live is a uniquely thrilling experience – at its best, it is hugely powerful and the most emotionally direct of all art forms. The combination of dramatic narrative, stagecraft and music, and especially the range and vulnerability of the human voice, make opera the art form that comes closest to expressing pure emotion. It is storytelling at its most vivid and manipulative.” – Richard Mantle, General Director of Opera North

The arts, and more specifically, opera, offer us a chance to peer into the window of the collective human soul.  For a few hours, an audience is invited to live the life of a dying courtesan, see through the eyes of a lascivious duke, or be in on the secrets kept by the scheming maid.  While these scenarios sound farfetched and unrealistic, there is something relatable in each character.  It is the performer who has willingly opened their hearts to us, allowing us to be immersed in a life that is not our own.

Opera is escapism at its very best.  For example, amid the struggle in Syria, refugees from the conflict joined an opera company in Stuttgart to produce Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte.  It was the hope of the director, Cornelia Lanz, to instill, “a message of peace and hope into the adaptation.”  While Cosi doesn’t necessarily convey anti-war messages, the inclusion of the refugees and their stories certainly made a statement; opera may be an older art form but it is certainly not irrelevant.

I will never forget my first experience with live opera.  I was very fortunate to be given a ticket to the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette.  It was remarkable how much the music and singing enhanced the emotional turmoil and drama experienced by the characters.  I found myself completely enthralled, unable and completely unwilling to tear my eyes away from the stage.  The moment that still seizes my heart came in Act Four.  There is a heartrending intermezzo between Act Three and Four, and when the curtain rose, suspended over the stage was the marriage bed of the doomed lovers.

This photo doesn't even come close to how stunning this was in real life.  But, you get the idea.
This photo doesn’t even come close to how stunning this was in real life. But, you get the idea.

The stage was twinkling with stars as a breeze blew over the sheets of the bed, stirring the couple from their sleep.  As they began singing the haunting “Nightingale Duet”, I felt tears roll down my cheeks.  I was completely overcome.  I used to write off Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as the ridiculous tale of two teenagers who died needlessly.  But as I watched this incredible production, I finally understood that it was much more than that.  Opera showed me that Romeo and Juliet is the story of the power of unconditional love.  Opera showed me that we have an obligation to keep the arts alive because they have the power to move millions and hopefully, create a world of peace, understanding, and acceptance.

I truly believe that we, as opera lovers and more specifically, young artists, have an obligation to ask ourselves these important questions; why does opera matter?  If we claim to love this art form, then we should be prepared to defend it.  So, you tell me; what does opera mean to you?  What makes it relevant?  Opera needs your voice (quite literally) to survive.  Now let it be heard!

Polishing Your Resume

Patricia Weinmann, one half of Boston Opera Collaborative’s dynamic duo of Artist Directors, was so kind as to bestow some very poignant advice on cleaning up a resume.

 

It’s audition season and in addition to having a fabulous aria package, you have to have a professional resume ready to go!

Resumes are a reflection of you: Not only what you’ve done (and will be doing) but a sense of who are you.  Attention to detail is paramount.  Resumes vary widely in looks, but there are elements that all resumes should contain.
Audition panels appreciate a resume that is easy and fast to read.  Keep the font a reasonable size and type (avoid fancy, curly fonts–even with your name) and create some white space so that the resume doesn’t look too crowded.
Here are some pointers!
  • Must fit on one 8.5×11 sheet
  • A thumbnail photo is very helpful
  • Professional email: use the cute ones for personal use only: cuteysoprano@gmail., etc.–please don’t
  • No mis-spellings of titles, people, etc.  For instance, Cosi fan tutte–fan and tutte are not capitalized.  This is trickier with Le nozze di Figaro.  Many times Nozze is capitalized-you could go either way with that one.  But be careful with other title
    • RE: People’s names: It’s always a little disturbing when I see my name spelled incorrectly on an singer’s resume–a singer who was a student of mine for two years…..
  • Simple titles for categories: Roles, Scenes (just put Scenes–Partial Role is unnecessary–we know what you mean–scenes), Concert/Recital, Education, TrainingAwards/Honors/Scholarships/Related Experience
  • Use columns for directors, conductors, teachers, etc.  Much easier to read than a horizontal list.
    • A word of advice on creating these clean columns and making them easy to edit later- use the Chart function if you’re using Microsoft Word.  Add all of the things you need- Title of Opera, Role, Location, Year.  Once you’ve added everything you need, highlight the entire chart and select “Hide All Borders” from the toolbar.  Voila!   A clean, easy to edit listing of all your work!
  • Teachers, coaches, etc.: List three or four at the most.  Pick the people who know you best and, if we called or emailed them, they would remember you.  Conductors–again–best if they know you. Coaches, voice teachers, stage directors–try to list people who remember you.  A big name is not as important (Conductors and master classes may be viewed differently)
  • No months, list only years
  • Don’t list composers unless it is an obscure composer and/or a premiere
  • If your resume is jammed-packed, remove less important or older information
  • Special skills:
    • Foreign languages: only list if you are fluent; we assume that you’ve had a smattering of languages and diction classes
    • Other instruments only if you’ve had years of lessons and/or have achieved a level of real proficiency
    • Dance: lessons when you were a child shouldn’t be listed but if you’ve continued dancing through high school and college, do list.
    • Stage combat: only if you’ve had a full semester; not a week or day workshop
Patricia has also included two sample resumes that she has deemed clean and polished!  Take a look and see where yours could use some help!
Now, you have all the tools to make a lovely and clean resume!  Go get ‘em!

Natalie Polito: Wisdom from an Emerging Artist and BOC Alum

 

Following her recent international debut in concert at the National Academy of Music in Hanoi, Vietnam, rising star soprano Natalie Polito makes a number of additional exciting debuts during the 2014-2015 season, including her Opera Columbus debut as the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro, debuts with both Opera Saratoga and the Erie Chamber Orchestra as Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute, and with Opera Providence as Violetta in La Traviata. The season also includes her return to Vietnam for a world premiere performance with the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra of a new song cycle, Songs of Reconciliation, by Boston-based composer Larry Bell, a world premiere performance of Joseph Summers’s chamber opera The Tempest with The Shakespeare Concerts in Boston, and an appearance as the Soprano Soloist in Handel’s Messiah with The Stamford Symphony.

As an alumni of Boston Opera Collaborative, Natalie was kind enough to offer her insights into what it’s like to bridge the gap between being a young singer and an emerging professional artist.

What has been your involvement with BOC (i.e. roles, other performances, work experiences administrative, committee, etc.)?

I have actually been involved with BOC since the very beginning!  It’s amazing to see the company entering its 10th season next year, when I can remember back to our very first membership meeting and the work that went into putting up our very first production of Gluck’s Iphigenie en Aulide.  It was an incredible honor to be cast as the title role in that very first show, and I went on to sing several other roles while I was a member of the company.  A few of my favorites were Donna Anna in Don Giovanni in 2008, Countess in 2010’s Le nozze di Figaro, and I had a blast playing a scary gingerbread kid in the ensemble of Hansel and Gretel in 2007.   In the early seasons I worked as the first Fundraising Chair and for the past few seasons I’ve enjoyed representing the company as an alumni artist member of the Board of Directors.

What has it been like to be a member of the board?

I’m so grateful to have had the experience to see the inner workings of the company as a board member, and to have played a role in helping the company grow and change over the last several years. One of the most rewarding experiences I have had as a board member has been serving on search committees for BOC’s Artistic Director and General Director, two positions that are vital to shaping the direction of the company.  As a founding member of BOC, I care deeply for the mission and the young singers who benefit from membership in BOC!

How has membership with BOC affected your career?  The behind the scenes work and the singing?

I truly would not be where I am today without BOC. Like many young singers, when I graduated with my Masters from Boston Conservatory in 2006, I had only sung one leading opera role, ever.  My voice was still developing and growing, and I needed to gain experience in order to be competitive with other singers entering the “next step” of young artist programs.  In my years as a singing member of BOC, I added several roles to my resume and had the opportunity to learn from many talented young conductors and directors who have since gone on to great things!  I learned how to create a character and make it my own, and gained vocal confidence while singing with full orchestras.  The roles I sang with BOC showed larger opera companies that I was ready and able to perform those roles, for example – I sang my first Countess in Le nozze di Figaro with BOC in 2010.  Then in 2013 as a member of the Emerging Artist Program at Virginia Opera, I was given the opportunity to cover the Countess, and now in March of 2015, I’m looking forward to singing my first professional Countess in my house debut at Opera Columbus!

The education that BOC members receive in terms of arts administration work is also extremely valuable.  The skills I gained while running BOC’s fundraising department allowed me to land a job with the Free for All Concert Fund, an amazing organization committed to providing free classical music to all people in Boston, which was my “day job” up until recently taking the plunge to move to New York and sing full time!  I am so grateful to BOC for giving me the skills to work in such a fulfilling job that allowed me to make such an impact on the city of Boston.

Miss Polito as the Queen of the Night with Opera Saratoga

What was your favorite role or production with BOC?

It’s hard to pick just one! I loved 2010’s Le nozze di Figaro – we had such a great time as a cast finding the comedy in the score, and there’s nothing quite like singing the Act 2 Finale of Figaro with full orchestra!  Plus, our director decided that the Countess would be pregnant, so I had a great time figuring out how to maneuver onstage with a big fake baby bump!  I also have fond memories of singing the Fox in The Cunning Little Vixen in 2011.  I wasn’t familiar with the opera at all before working on it with BOC, and I completely fell in love with the score – plus it was so fun to play my first pants role and a fox, all at the same time!  Costumes really are the best part of opera, don’t you think?!

What’s something that you wish you would’ve known about a singing career when you were leaving graduate school?  In other words – what DON’T the conservatories tell you?

A piece of advice that someone told me a few years ago was to go into auditions thinking only of competing with yourself, not the other singers.  It can be so easy to compare yourself to the other singers in your fach, especially as a young singer, and I know I struggled with it a lot.  The first audition I did with that new mindset was a turning point for me – all that was on the line was doing better than I had the last time, and that thought was so freeing.  We all have something unique to offer, whether it’s our look, or the color of our voice, or the way we use our body onstage – and every audition auditor might like something different!  Embracing that and knowing that regardless of the panel’s personal tastes, you have something different to offer than everyone else that will walk in that room is very important.  And it’s also what makes opera so special – you can hear the same opera sung literally thousands of different ways, because each singer is unique and no two productions will ever be exactly the same

As someone who has sung internationally, what advice would you give to a young singer about to make their foray into the international singing?

 Embarking on a professional singing career means commitment to a lifestyle that may not be for everyone. Again, this is something I wish I had known more about as a young singer!  A professional singing career is a life on the road, often living out of two suitcases for months at a time, usually in homestays or hotels.  For example, I will travel overseas in December for a performance with the Vietnam National Symphony, and then I’m on the road for the next five months in various cities throughout the US.  Last year, I spent almost nine months of the year on the road, living out of the same couple of bags!  It can be grueling and lonely at times, and often your free time at one gig is spent working on music for the next.  You miss weddings and birthdays, and keep up with friends and loved ones via Skype and Facetime.  Your setting can be unfamiliar, whether it’s a wacky homestay family or a hotel in the middle of a country whose language you don’t speak.  The other months of the year can be spent working a temp job to make ends meet in between gigs, or doing many weeks of auditions in New York for future gigs.

At the same time, I think being on the road is the absolute best part of my job.  I do sometimes get lonely and I certainly miss the people I care about (and my kitty cat Adele!) but at the same time, I fall in love with every new city I visit.  From Norfolk, Virginia to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam to Waitsfield, Vermont and everywhere in between, I love trying all of the local restaurants, making new opera friends, and calling each new city home.

 What’s the most surprising skill that you gained while in BOC?

BOC’s artists are involved in ALL aspects of putting on each production, so I would have to say I never thought I would learn how to properly (and safely!) hang a stage light! Some of my best BOC memories are of the friendships forged behind the scenes while putting up productions, many of whom remain some of my best friends to this day.

Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, Boston Opera Collaborative, 2008 (photo by J.Justin Bates)

 

What’s your favorite piece of music (opera, song, theater or otherwise) and why?

 That’s a tough question!  I definitely can’t pick just one favorite opera, so I’ll give my top 3 – WozzeckLa Traviata, and Cavalleria Rusticana.  They’re all very different musical styles, but what I think they have in common is that drama is such a central part of the score.  My all-time favorite piece of music though might be the Act 2 Finale of Figaro, which I can’t wait to do again this spring at Opera Columbus!

 Do you think the nature of making a career of singing in opera is changing?  If so, how do you think the experience of BOC can help a young singer prepare for their next stage?

I think now more than ever it’s important for singers to know their “brand”, and to be savvy and knowledgeable businesspeople in addition to talented performers.  BOC is so important because it gives its members skills both on and off the stage, that will continue to serve them in their careers for years to come, whether they choose to be performers, or administrators, or teachers, or something else entirely.  Being an artist encompasses so much more than just having a beautiful voice.

 How do you think opera is evolving and changing with the times?  Or do you think it’s staying the same?  Do you prefer opera to be reinvented or remain the same?

 There has been a lot of talk lately about how opera is “dying” – companies are closing, audiences are graying, and soon we’ll all be out of a job, they say. But to anyone who says that, I would encourage them to go see the current production of Death of Klinghoffer at the Met.  If you’ve been keeping up with the news the opera has been the subject of a lot of debate these last few weeks (who ever said opera was boring!?!).  I attended this past Friday, and the audience was rapt – and FULL of young people.  The opera was poignant, relevant, immediate.  I’ve never heard an audience that large be so still and so quiet – it was truly a magical night of theater that I will never forget.  So yes, I think opera is evolving and changing, and it’s certainly not dying!

 

From all of us at Boston Opera Collaborative, thank you, Natalie!  We wish you all the best in your upcoming performances!

Get the latest updates on Natalie Polito from her website at www.nataliepolito.com

Knowledge is power- Resources for a stellar audition

As many of you know, the fall brings the onslaught of auditions for the upcoming seasons of hundreds of opera companies.  Those of you who are just starting out probably took one look at the YAP Tracker website and just about keeled over!  The benefits of having all of this information at your fingertips are numerous but the sheer number of opportunities is a bit intimidating!

Fear not, young singers!  There are so many resources available to you to help prepare you for this exciting time, including this spectacular series being produced by Carnegie Hall called “The Singers Audition Handbook” written by Claudia Friedlander.  This series puts together a bunch of videos with very helpful information, including the first post, “What do you wish you had known starting out?”  Ms. Friedlander also helps you to figure out what programs and auditions would be best for you as a young singer; the infamous Young Artist Program, competitions, and beyond.

For those of you who are a little more “weathered”, this series will also delve into proper formatting for a repertoire list, polishing your ever-growing resume, and even tips for giving an unforgettable audition.

The Musical Exchange website is also very handy reference point, with many articles, videos, and communities for musicians to join.  I would highly recommend signing up and creating your individual profile!  There are just too many great resources to pass this up!

 

Now, get out there and sing your little hearts out!!!

On the Road with Zachary Ballard

Zachary Ballard, BaritoneZachary Ballard is currently singing in the 2014 Des Moines Metro Opera Apprentice Artist Program. There he is performing the 2nd Guard in Dead Man Walking and covering the lead, Joseph de Rocher. An avid performer and emerging operatic artist, Zachary most recently travelled across the state of Iowa as part of Des Moines Metro Opera’s outreach educational troupe, OPERA Iowa. There he sang the role of Don Giovanni Pig in The Three Little Pigs (Davies) and Belcore in Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love. In the summer of 2013, Zachary made his Boston Opera Collaborative debut covering and performing scenes as Dandini in Donizetti’s La Cenerentola. Other 2013 highlights include singing Papageno (Mozart, Die Zauberflöte) with the Manhattan Opera Studio and Junius (Britten, The Rape of Lucretia) as part of the Opera Brittenica inaugural season. Zachary is continually searching for enriching opportunities in the world of opera.

 

What was the audition process like for the Young Artist Program you are currently singing with? 

I auditioned for Des Moines Metro Opera during the regular New York season.  So, I used my YAP Tracker account to send in materials and book a time slot.  I traveled to New York and sang my audition, which was for both the OPERA Iowa and DMMO programs.  Because I indicated that I was interested and available for both contracts, I found out about my acceptance relatively soon after singing for the company.

How did you prepare for your experience? (Music memory, moving, etc.)

Taking on both contracts generally means about a six month commitment.  Because of that, I had to relocate to Indianola, Iowa.  We rehearsed for about three weeks before starting the school tour, so I showed up for the first contract nearly memorized.  We knew about the season for the summer as well, so after I signed my second set of contracts I started learning choruses, small roles, and scene assignments.

What is your living situation like?

During the winter, I lived with one other person (a great guy and roommate) in an apartment.  The educational tour involves a great deal of traveling, though, so I mostly lived out of hotel rooms.  The summer is much different, as the company utilizes Simpson College’s campus and apprentices live in individual rooms with communal bathrooms.

What has the experience been like so far? (classes, rehearsal, etc)

The process has been very busy.  DMMO’s season wraps up earlier than many other programs, so we are constantly moving.  That’s exciting in a way, because there is always another performance to prepare.  However, I have not been vocally challenged like this before.  The same goes for the winter contract.  We sang shows, generally two a day, all week long.  That doesn’t include evening performances, weekend concerts, and a random bar sing or two.

Has anything about your experience surprised you?

I was surprised that everyone got along so well.  My colleagues have been amazing.  Not that I expected cattiness, but I did anticipate that we would be too busy to socialize.  Not the case.  I have made some great friends here and have felt very supported by all of them.  I am also surprised to feel the need to rest.  Usually singers seem to just move from gig to gig without rest, but I can surely say I need a break (at least a small one).  I’m learning that pacing is much more active than I realized, and you need to be careful so you can plan accordingly.

How do you feel you have grown / are growing through this experience?

I have really started to figure out where my individual voice fits into the larger operatic spectrum by being here.  Schools can only show you so much about where you will land after graduating, and having fresh takes on what I do has been truly educational.

What is the next step for your career?

I have a few things in the works, but until anything is set in stone, all I can say is I’m moving with my fiancé (not singing related) to Washington D.C. as soon as I leave Iowa.  More auditions!