Sunday, November 16, 2008

Not exactly opera

It is possible over time to lose enthusiasm, to stop finding pleasure in an art form. I have wondered about this in recent months. Am I burning out? Or is it just that what's being presented is lacking artistic taste?

During the past ten days I covered two events and in both cases I learned that I'm not burning out. The first event was a Memorial Service for Edgar Vincent. One of the partcipants was Joan Morris. She sang a witty song, "Black Max". It's a marvelous song, but what made this experience so special was the delivery- no costume, no fancy lighting, no excess staging, just one artist singing with total attention to words, detail, the music. The audience was rapt. So simple. So perfect.
The second event was the Martina Arroyo Fundation Gala evening. One of the participants was Paquito D'Rivera, renown jazz artist and composer. Again there were no trimmings, almost no light, no scenery, no excess, one artist playing for the audience, gripping, exciting, brilliant.

Both events brought total joy. And neither cost millions of dollars to produce. The artists knew what they were doing and required no "crutches". What was presented brought smiles and cheers from the audience. There's an important lesson: know what you're doing if you're a performer, and for producers, less is more.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

An Opera Family

During the years that I documented the New York City Opera, 1966- 1981, it was a musical family. There was a core of singers who did a variety of roles. They knew their parts as well as their colleagues' parts. New productions got full dress rehearsals. Important complex revivals got full dress rehearsals. Everything else did not. There was no prompter's box. That meant the singers had to know what they were doing or they didn't survive. It was wonderful watching singers do a variety of roles,- comic, tragic and everything in between, all languages. There was a sense of artistic security. Sets were simple. Many costumes were one-outfit-fits-all, hemlines up and down, waist lines in and out. That's the way it was and it was musically wonderful.

I don't mean to insult the many fine performers who were there all the time, the core company. For this blog I can use Muriel Costa Greenspon as an example, because the images have already been scanned. She did a wide spectrum of roles over the years. I include appearances in Mikado, Bomarzo (if only we could again hear the Ginastera operas!), Cavalleria, Faust, Albert Herring, Pelleas, HMS Pinafore, Street Scene and Tabarro. She was one of the first opera singers to catch my attention because no matter what she was doing she was always in character.

No singer can always be assigned to do everything he or she wants to do. There is more talent than available assignments, but when you have a musical family the art of opera is well served. Without question the audience enjoyed and showed their appreciation.

I wonder now if we have lost the ability to sit, listen and understand without having every nuance visually forced. In the past the audiences were able to bring their own feelings into the experience. The New York City Opera family gave to those audiences and they reciprocated. They were a supportive, enthusiastic audience,- family performers, family audience.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

A real child

Puccini knew how to pour real feelings into his music. It's all there to be delivered to the receptive audience. It doesn't need "help". Madame Butterfly has a real child, flesh and blood, which makes the drama poignant, painful, excruciatingly human. When that child is embraced at the end the audience will hurt with her. No distractions. Nothing else on that stage. Butterfly, the child and the music. I don't have time to scan every Butterfly-child image in my archive. This image, Gilda Cruz Romo, will stand for all the genuine interpretations. It is a heart-searing moment, meant to be. To distort this is a crime against art.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Waste and Twitches

It makes me sad and angry that perfectly good sets and props are discarded. We live in an age of economic uncertainty and waste money on glitzy productions that will have a short life span because shallow becomes boring very fast. How nice it would be to have revivals of operas that have been done with honor to the music. Or will the audience not be able to tolerate that which requires some concentration?!

I've chosen the NYC Opera MEFISTOFELE because it was enthusiastically enjoyed and I'm sure now demolished. Current theory: anything that was has no merit. Well, think again. If the treasures are worthless then why is there a hunger for recordings of performances from the past?

I'm waiting for the day that the medical community does a proper study of human brains now that they have been exposed to excessive electronic devices. There is much written and commented about the use of cell phones and texting devices during performances. I think people are addicted, can't sit still, can't function without the adrenalin fix of an electronic device, brains too neurologically impaired to be able to relax. If the audience can't sit calmly, can't let themselves be wrapped in the greatness of art then we're all doomed.

"Can" music. Do great art work as cartoons. Close the theaters and museums. Shovel out "plastic imitation".

Simple is good. Composers and artists knew what they were doing. Traditionalists got it right. Heritage should not be thrown away. And there should be a law. If you can't speak proper English, can't spell, don't know proper manners and common sense then you can't own an electronic device.

Monday, October 13, 2008


There has been much written about nudity in SALOME. At the end of the Dance of the Seven Veils in the current Met production Salome is staged to strip to nothing. Nudity does not a Salome make. And if any singer doing this role doesn't feel comfortable doing this there are suitable alternatives. It's something that should be discussed before a production reaches the stage. Certainly movie stars have been known to balk when asked to do nude scenes.

I have been lucky to have heard and seen brilliant Salomes all of whom were sexy as could be and kept their clothes on. They used their voices to conjure up this willful, spoiled, obsessed female. And when it came time for the dance they used their legs. But mostly the characterizations were vocal,.. mesmerizing, sending chills up your spine.

I prefer a true biblical setting where the interaction between Salome and Herod is clear cut with both performers working face to audience. You can not have Herod with his back to the audience. In fact both Herod and Herodias must show their facial expressions clear for the audience. That's half the fun. Salome is nuts. She didn't get that way accidentally.

The words and action are so spine-tingling that the work could be done on a blank stage. I saw the Oscar Wilde play once in a stark room and was totally gripped by the drama. The only props were a knife, some fruit, a goblet, a silver tray and the head. Nothing else was needed.

Nudity is a gimmick, unnecessary if the performers have it in their voices and being to encompass the roles. Try a lacy skin costume if necessary. Very sexy and alluring.
This is Birgit Nilsson, SALOME Jan. 19, 1966. The head was William Dooley.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Peter Grimes

If time permitted I'd scan more old films, but that's hard during the shooting season. The Vickers Peter Grimes stands as the epitome of this role for me. My heart bled for Grimes from the first measure of the score. There was a giant on the stage, an anguished man, supreme artist. It made work thrilling and torturous,.... capture what's happening, do justice to greatness, get into the soul of Grimes. Exhausting endeavor. Yes, there are many more images, but there isn't time to scan everything. I wish the digital tools had been available in 1977.

Monday, October 6, 2008

April 7, 1966

This was one of my first FIDELIOs. It didn't get better than this. The magic couple. There was no gimmickry. It was Beethoven. I was there to learn the opera. This is a memory that will live with me forever. Vickers, Nilsson and Milnes, then Nilsson and Vickers.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Precious memories

One of the segments during the Stratas Tribute program last week was a video clip from the 1978 "Bartered Bride", a duet between Marenka and Vasek, Stratas with Jon Vickers. I remember that presentation. A photographer is supposed to remain impartial, capture the truth, don't let feelings interrupt the work responsibility, but I can't do that and could never do that. Stratas and Vickers were giants. What they did radiated out into the house. It was impossible not to be consumed with feelings, not to fall totally in love, not to laugh or hurt according to what was happening, not to try to soak it all into the camera.

One thinks of Vickers as Peter Grimes, Siegmund, Parsifal, Florestan, Otello,- but he was also a wonderful comedian and as Vasek, a perfect bumbling, sweet, endearing town boy. Every word, every inflection had that Vickers quality. Perfection. It was delicious.
There will be more Vickers entries in the future. The hard part will be looking at the images and making the editorial selections. It will be done with enormous thankfulness.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Teresa Stratas

The Metropolitan Opera Guild presented a Tribute to LA STRATAS on the 25th at Town Hall. It was a love fest from start to finish, wonderful insights and treasured video clips of her enormously powerful interpretations on stage. As a photographer I've felt the huge responsibility to capture the accuracy of each production, but when an artist like Teresa Stratas is on stage the feeling is electric. The intensity of what she did, -the total envelopment of the character, the musical sensitivity- made each photo project a thrill. Even now I can feel that charge, the laughter when something was funny, the anguish when it was tragic. I could feel her power even before she was visibly on stage. On Thursday night the audience gave her a standing ovation. They were with her all evening, with compassion when she talked about things in her family that are cause for deep feeling, with smiles and laughter when she shared a special moment, and with cheers when she expressed something pertinent to the current trends. She was asked who her favorite stage director was and the immediate reply was, "any director who left us alone to do our own thing as indicated by the music". That got prolong cheers. Teresa was lucky. She worked with great opera directors. If someone wasn't attentive to the music she walked out. That didn't harm her career. Managers wanted her back. Integrity has no price tag. It lives for all time . The Stratas legacy will live forever.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Digging in the Files

A request came in this week for an image from the Juilliard American Opera Center archive. It meant checking a group of contact sheets. Oh my goodness, memories ! I didn't remember these pictures. What fun! Neil Shicoff, Leona Mitchell, Tito Gobbi, George London, Laszlo Halasz, Ruthie Welting, a young Renee Fleming. There are others. I'll get to them eventually.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

La Cieca

I promised that this blog site would not be about current events, so this entry is about photo tools. There are roles that I adore. One of them is La Cieca. My lens has always been drawn to this character. How glorious it would have been if the optics had allowed crawling into that role thirty-three years ago. It wasn't possible in 1975 when Fedora Barbieri was La Cieca. Now it's possible to get into the guts of this character. Of course, there has to be an artist who becomes this character..... heartbreaking, poignant. My long lens was glued to Ewa PodleĊ›.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Sick to Death

More memories of the sick and dying........ nothing to do with sets. The performers proved what was happening by their actions and words. They made one's heart weep.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Nina Lawson

There is an article about Nina in today's New York Times, Sept. 17th. It can be accessed online, Obituaries. This post accompanies my previous blog.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Hair, the Long and Short of It

Today's entry is a tribute to NINA LAWSON, the Met's Hair and Wig Stylist from 1956 until her retirement in 1988. Sadly, Nina died September 9th after a long illness. She lived in Scotland. In speaking to people with whom she worked the reaction has been, "Oh, sweet Nina". She was deeply loved.

The curtain goes up and the audience is drawn into the drama, the story, the glory of the human voice, pretty sets and costumes. The hair seems to be taken for granted, a given, but stage hair is not easy. The singer has to be comfortable, can't feel overheated or itchy. The singer may be thrown around the stage. The hair can't fall off. The singer may be transformed from healthy to ill, taking off one layer of hair to reveal another layer. Sometimes the singer plays the opposite sex. Long hair, short hair, stylized hair, hair to be grabbed as a form of punishment, Nina dealt with it all. She knew how to make the singers comfortable, how to listen to confidences and keep them private, how to select the correct materials for the wigs, how to deal with super egos, how to stand up for control when necessary, how to be calm and patient when emotions were flying.

It is impossible to post a thousand wig pictures, so I've selected a few to show how the hair suits the operatic character. The pictures are not about the "stars". The long and short of it is the mastery of the hair.

Nina was a delight, a true artist and a treasured friend to many.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Memory Lane, 1964

Standing room downstairs in the old Met ran around the sides of the auditorium divided into "holding pens". This circle of enthusiastic, knowledgeable opera buffs, could often guide the seated members of the audience. The standees were the first to cheer, really cheer and if they got going the seated audience members followed. I was still in school and was trying to learn everything about opera. Some weeks I stood through six performances. It was the greatest opera lesson in the world.
You had to line up on Broadway and wait for ticket sales to start. Once the doors opened it was a mad dash to whatever standing spot you wanted. Spots were not assigned. I loved standing in the section closest to the stage, because it was possible to watch the Maestri as well as the stage action. If the performance was "ordinary" there were not many standees. If it was a "hot" performance standing room sold out fast. I didn't know the difference between ordinary or hot. I wanted to witness everything.

March 14, 1964, BOHEME. I didn't know what was going on until I was in it. On this night Renata Tebaldi was the Mimi, her first performance at the Met after a year's. I had not paid attention to the cast. I wanted to hear BOHEME. The first difference was the pack of people. The standing room sections could hold maybe 30 people. Suddenly there had to have been 100 people scrunched into the space. The house staff noticed the scrunch and ordered the ushers to check ticket stubs. "Show me your ticket". And you showed the usher your ticket. When the usher moved on, the ticket stubs got passed behind backs to anyone needing a stub. This was taking on a whole new level of entertainment and the opera hadn't even begun. Seated on the floor in my section in the midst of the crush was a little old lady. I was told that she was a devout Tebaldi fan. She looked to be at least 90 yrs. old. The usher spotted her down on the floor. "Show me your ticket". She smiled. The usher waited. No ticket. What now? The little lady said to the usher, "I'll pray for you." The usher thought for a moment and answered, "I'll pray for you too", and moved on. It was that kind of evening. I have no idea where all the people came from, from cracks in the walls???? It was a glorious evening. Tebaldi made her entrance and was greeted with thunderous welcome. It's a long time from 1964 to 2008 and I'll never forget that evening,- the performance, the audience, the total love.