Friday, July 31, 2009

Top Ten Fridays: Opera's 10 Most Wanted

Baddies. Everybody loves 'em. But of course no one wants to be on the receiving end of a bad guy's ire and punishment. However, without villains, opera would not be dramatic. Or provocative. Or talked about. It simply would not be "op-er-ah."

So while we're sit in the comforts of the red plush seat, in the dark of the theatre, we can enjoy the villainy taking place on the stage, without any guilt.

This week we invite you to tell us on the right side poll who is the most evil opera villain. Results will be posted next week. *Cue twirling of handlebar mustache and evil laugh*

Who: Iago in Otello
Why: Power hungry Iago tricks Otello into thinking that his wife, Desdemona and Cassio have been having an affair. Only after Otello kills his beloved wife, does he realize how Iago had deceived him. (14% of the votes)

Who: Don Giovanni
Why: He views women as sport and plays with their feelings recklessly. Donna Elvira whom he abandons, Donna Anna whom he tries to rape (and kills her father) and Donna Zerlina whom he tries to lure away from her fiance. All 3 vow revenge on Don Giovanni. He gets his comeuppance however by being dragged to hell. (14% of the votes)

Who: Salome
Why: She desires John the Baptist. John the Baptist refuses her. Salome goes off the deep end and has him beheaded. Then goes on to perform some necrophilia. (28% of the votes)

Who: Lady Macbeth in Macbeth
Why: An ambitious woman, Lady Macbeth is disgusted when her husband can not carry out the murder of King Duncan. So instead, takes it upon herself to kill the king in his sleep. But later suffers pangs of guilt for her part in the crime. (14% of the votes)

Who: Scarpia in Tosca
Why: A sadist who lusts after Tosca whom he forces her to watch as he tortures her lover, Cavaradossi. Tosca succumbs to his advances when Scarpia writes a guarantee of safe passage for her and Cavaradossi. After Tosca murders Scarpia, she realizes that she has been tricked. There was no guarantee. Cavaradossi is executed by firing squad. (57% of the votes)

Who: Count Di Luna in Il trovatore
Why: Another man wanting a woman he can't have. Di Luna loves Leonara who is in love with Manrico. Di Luna sentences Manrico's gypsy mother Azucena to be burned at the stake. When he can't get Leonara to truly be his, he executes Manrico. Then finds out that he was his brother. (7% of the votes)

Who: Barnaba of La gioconda
Why: Barnaba lusts after La Gioconda. When she rejects him, he denounces her blind mother as a witch. Gioconda stabs herself to death rather than give into Barnaba. As a last act of evil, Barnaba screams at Gioconda's lifeless body that he had her blind mother drowned. (7% of the votes)

Who: Kaspar in Der Freisch├╝tz
Why: Trying to get out of a deal with the devil for his immortal soul, Kaspar tricks Max into casting 7 magic bullets to be used in a shooting contest. All so he could obtain 3 more years of life in exchange for Max in his place. One of those bullets hit his beloved Agathe. (7% of the votes)

Who: Nick Shadow in The Rake's Progress
Why: A devilish character, Nick Shadow "influences" Tom with the sleazy life of london's underbelly, gets him to marry a bearded lady and mass produce a machine that turn stones into bred, bringing him financial ruin. Tom wins his soul back with a card game but not before Nick condemns Tom to insanity. (14% of the votes)

Who: Aegistheus in Elektra
Why: Elektra's mother Klytaemnestra enlists her paramour Aegisthus to murder her husband and Elektra's father, Agamemnon. Elektra swears revenge and gets her brother to kill Klytaemnestra and Aegisthus. As Electra dances in triumph on her father's tomb, she suddenly drops dead. (no votes)

Who said opera was boring?

~ Ling Chan

Operamania 101: It's Getting Hot In Here

VO blog readers in Vancouver and the lower mainland will get why I chose Malcolm McLaren's Madame Butterfly as this week's OperaMania 101.

The past few days with its record breaking temperatures and humidity have left almost of all us wishing for an end to this heatwave. As Vancouver is normally temperate in climate, I think like 99% of people here do not have air conditioning at home. So fellow Vancouverites in the 99% boat (myself included), this one's for you.

Who would've thought that the man who introduced the world to 70s punk act, The Sex Pistols and opened a fetish inspired boutique called Sex with fashion designer Vivienne Westwood would later make his mark with opera? McLaren who also managed 80s groups Adam and the Ants and Bow Wow Wow, released Fans in 1984. The EP blended opera, hip hop and electronica with its pop adaptations on famous operatic arias from Bizet's Carmen and Puccini's Turandot and Madame Butterfly.

Written by McLaren and produced by Stephen Hague, Madame Butterfly (Un bel di vedremo) with its slow beats of the drum machines and airy synthesizers complemented McLaren's spoken word as Pinkerton.

What may have sounded like disaster on paper was in fact transcendent upon listening. Fans became a huge international seller and charted in the top 20 in the UK.

Choosing not to tell the story literally, McLaren envisioned for the dream-like video, a procession of scantily clad women in flesh coloured leotards hanging out in a turkish steam room.

The runway model type women look distant, detached and distracted, possibly thinking of and waiting for their own Pinkertons. Whether reading a letter, crying, getting a massage, waiting or dragging their drape sheets around, the images of these women with their heavy makeup are hypnotic. I wouldn't even be surprised if Madame Butterfly inspired the 1985 Robert Palmer women-centric video, Addicted to Love.

But as I watch this video, I'm thinking, "Boy, they look like they're absolutely melting in that steam room." If it's at all possible, I'm getting hotter than I already am just by watching this video. And hence the Vancouver connect.

McLaren would continue his love of opera by sampling another aria; this time for the award winning 1989 British Airway commercial, featuring Lakme.

Keep cool Vancouver. Stay out of the saunas and the steam rooms. See you at the pool instead.

~ Ling Chan

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Operamania 101: Say My Name

Who hasn't felt like an outsider growing up? Or woken up with nary an ounce of teen angst? Who thinks that highschool was the best that life could get?

Yeah, didn't think so.

Everyone's felt like 80s It girl Winona Ryder in Tim Burton's 1988 movie, Beetlejuice. The teenaged goth daughter dressed in black to match the colour of her heart. Your typical adolescent. Feeling lost, strange, confused, unable to relate to anyone, not sure how to cope. It doesn't help much that her parents are gaudy and obnoxious Jeffrey Jones and Catherine O'Hara.

But unlike us, she got to become friends with the resident ghost couple Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin as well as the object of affection to Michael Keaton's miscreant Betelgeuse.

Right before Betelgeuse tries to get her to bring him into the land of the living by saying his name 3 times, here she is melodramatically composing her suicide note by candlelight. In the background plays the famous aria, Regnava nel silenzio from Donizetti's opera, Lucia di Lammermoor.

It is this aria in Act One that Lucia tells her maid that she has seen the ghost of a girl, to which the maid responds that the apparition serves as a warning and that lucia must abandon her love for Edgardo because of the feud between her family and his.

Course we know how that all turns out and what happens to "mad scene" Lucia.

So it's no surprise then that dramma tragico (tragic opera) can feel like the domain of life as a teenager.

Course now that we've lived through it once, who'd want to do it again?

~ Ling Chan

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Operamania 101: Unquenchable Thirst

Watch. How many of our faithful readers out there after reading this blog will inexplicably be overcome with a thirst for a cold 'un on a hot summer day? All of a sudden, I feel like an enabler as this Foster's Carlton Draught ad might certainly make one keep their eyes peeled for the nearest patio.

The 2005 Australian ad opens with 2 armies of choir robe-wearing men about to charge at each other "Braveheart" style. They run across a paddock to the strains of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana: O Fortuna but replacing the original lyrics with lines such as "It's a big ad....Expensive ad...This ad better sell some bloody beer."

Wow. So much testosterone.

And just when you think bodily harm will be inflicted and limbs flying everywhere, surprise! An aerial shot reveals the yellow robed men running down a clear path made by the red robed army, thus clearly looking like beer being guzzled down the gullet.

What you hear is the Melbourne Chorale singing O Fortuna and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra provided the musical accompaniment.

The viral ad was so successful, it won the prestigious Gold Lion at Cannes in 2006.

In 1936, German composer Carl Orff wrote O Fortuna which was based on the Carmina Burana manuscripts, a collection of 13th century songs and poetry written by students and clergymen, advising about the fickleness of fortune, mortality and vices such as drinking, gluttony and carnal recklessness.

However, if listening to O Fortuna sends shivers down the spine, it's probably because you recall hearing it as a soundtrack to horror movies, most notably 1976's The Omen. Although it sounds dark and evil, the song itself contains no diabolical message.

And since The Omen, O Fortuna has been heard in Excalibur, Glory, The Hunt for Red October, The Doors, Natural Born Killers, The Bachelor, Jackass: The Movie, Cheaper by the Dozen and Epic Movie.

And I may be totally dating myself here, but I also remember a remix of O Fortuna by Apotheosis. This 1991 electronica version certainly made its rounds around the alternative/industrial club nights.

Orff's Carmina Burana has achieved ubiquitous worldwide recognition. The touring production has played to millions of people; 100,000 in Rio's Copacabana Beach alone. Just this past January, Carmina Burana was performed in London's O2 Arena (capacity 18,000) involving 250 performers, dancers, fireworks, bungee jumping and stilt walkers.

Listening to this epic masterpiece certainly taps into that primeval feeling inside us all, what with its dramatic music building up slowly, all intense and taut-like, until it finally erupts into an explosive and triumphant crescendo.

So I kinda get why it was used for a beer commercial. Because sometimes you feel just THAT thirsty.

~ Ling Chan

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Operamania 101: An Astronomical Combination

Mention the word Dido and this might come to mind:

British singer-songwriter of such pop hits as Thank You and White Flag.

Hmmm. Not quite opera for our Operamania 101.

When I think of Dido, I think of 2 genres of music that the word belongs to: opera and electronica. And what's better than appreciating 2 genres separately then appreciating them mashed up together?

If you're at all familiar with the house music scene, you may very well be familiar with Dido by Aria (Armin Van Buuren's Universal Religion Mix), which you can find on Tiesto's Summerbreeze cd.

Considered a huge trance anthem, this song is epic for good reason:

1. It samples the aria from English composer Henry Purcell's opera, Dido and Aeneas. The opera is based on the fourth book of Virgil's Aeneid. In it tells the love story of how a Trojan refugee named Aeneas gets shipwrecked in Carthage and falls in love with its queen, Dido. As love stories in opera are want to do, Aeneas must leave his love behind as he goes back to Rome. Dido finds she can not live without Aeneas and therefore awaits death instead. The name of Dido's lament is When I Am Laid In Earth.

2. It also samples the actual uplink conversation between the crew of the Apollo 7 (Wally Schirra, Donn Eisele and Walt Cunningham) and ground control's Cecil B. de Stafford in 1968 when the crew set up a tv camera inside the spacecraft and the very first television broadcast from space was made.

What you hear at the beginning of the track are as follows:

Hey Don how about saying something since you're paying
Actually I'm amazed, it looks real good
The definition is pretty good down here, I can see the center hatch
We'll have Cecil B deStafford down here directing
Keep those cards and letters coming in folks, it's loud and clear
Yeah... some of the reproductions here are real good, I can look out through Wally's rendezvous window

With such a stunning intro, an intense and powerful aria, scintillating synthesizers and a beat you can't help but move to, this track is a perfect example of what gorgeous music can be made between opera and trance. If you don't believe me, ask all those kids who've danced into the wee hours of the morning to this. Myself included.

~ Ling Chan

Monday, July 6, 2009

Chanteuse as femme fatale

Special thanks to durian dave for sending me this wonderful clip of actress Grace Chang singing Habanera. In Mandarin, no less. The 1960 movie musical is called Wild Wild Rose and was adapted from Bizet's opera, Carmen and Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel.

Chang is quite the saucy little minx here, singing, growling and strutting around seductively. The poor guys at the nightclub never stood a chance.

I just love this cover of Habanera. So very cha-cha and bossa nova with its latin and jazzy overtones.

You can also find this clip posted to the vancouver opera blog.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Operamania 101: Fava Beans And A Nice Chianti

Not every movie gets its very own opera music. In fact almost all of the movies that use opera have been chosen from famous repertoires. That is why when you hear a piece of opera in a film, it is instantly recognizable even if you can't quite put your finger on the name or the composer on hand.

Then again, not every movie has a character as memorable as Hannibal "I'm having an old friend for dinner" Lecter.

Vide cor meum was especially composed for this 1991 Ridley Scott movie. Composers Patrick Cassidy and Hans Zimmer's inspiration for this piece was based on the sonnet "A ciascun' alma presa" from chapter 3 of Dante's La vita nuova.

This original piece of music played during the outdoor opera scene in Florence Italy, where Lecter, Inspector Pazzi (played by Giancarlo Giannini) and his wife Allegra were all enjoying a night out. A lovely aria building up to a tense confrontational scene where Lecter "politely" flirts with Allegra. Shoot, you do NOT want to go up against Hannibal the Cannibal. And we all remember what happened to Pazzi in that movie.

Since Hannibal, Vide cor meum has been used during the 2002 Oscars for the lifetime achievement awards given to producer Dino de Laurentiis and also for another Ridley Scott movie, Kingdom of Heaven. The aria also showed up as the bonus track on soprano Sarah Brightman's album, Symphony: Live in Vienna.

The piece only exists as an aria. There is no actual opera, as seen in the movie. That's too bad because how the opera was staged and how the venue was set up in the movie, looked absolutely stunning and haunting.

If Cassidy and Zimmer ever wanted to quit their day jobs, it may not be a bad idea to finish what they started. I'm sure opera fans the world over would be queueing up to watch a complete opera of La vita nuova. And while they're at it, opera-goers can furtively keep an eye out for Sir Anthony Hopkins (as himself, not as Hannibal) should he be walking amongst them. Cuz wouldn't that just trip you out?

Just putting it out there.

~ Ling Chan