"Opera is sexy!"
I remember the time this innocent tweet from a music community tweep sparked a long, lively conversation between me and another tweep. His problem was that people always say that in an attempt to give opera broader appeal and reel in new audience members. He argued that not everything needs to be sexy, that opera can stand on its other merits, that "sexy" doesn't have to come into play. He's right. For example, The Met's ad campaign from last year clearly utilizes the sex appeal of the international stars gracing its stage, with Anna Netrebko in the throes of ecstasy, Diana Damrau and Vittorio Grigolo entwined atop silk sheets, and Elina Garanca giving us her best 90s Leonardo DiCaprio, one hand seductively stroking Renee Fleming's hair.
This is only the latest in a string of aesthetics-based choices at The Met. Then we have those regie European productions, where nudity is practically de rigeur. Gratuitous nudity is in vogue, for example the shower scene in Glyndebourne's Der Rosenkavalier.
So, yes, not everything needs to be sexy and this trend towards hyper-sexualization is not doing the art form any favors. He's right.
He's also wrong. Opera IS sexy. It's intrinsically sexy, for so many reasons. The stories are emotionally charged and sparks constantly fly between lovers. They deal with seduction, revenge, sex, and passionate love. The music is intoxicating and sweeps through the fourth wall to envelop and arouse the audience. Singing opera can be arousing. Opera is a safe space to explore and experience the many facets of desire.
Opera doesn't need to be sexy. It just is.
In case you missed me yelling about this in person or on every social media platform known to man -- I have a concert this Friday, June 23rd. I am insanely proud of this particular concert. It features works by a bunch of composers, and excerpts from an opera in progress. I am singing one of the lead roles in the opera scenes and an entire song cycle by the super-talented and crazy-nice Ross Crean, who is in absurdly high demand in the Chicago new music scene. I am extremely passionate about new vocal works, and this is an opportunity to really dig into some very satisfying music. These composers are all so smart; their music is full of nuance and little touches that bring home just how talented and brilliant they are. AND THE SINGERS. We have a group of amazing singers who have really brought this music to life. I'm so excited to bring this concert to fruition. I can't fully express how important it is to me, and I hope you come to see it. TICKETS
June 23, 7pm at Opera America National Opera Center (330 7th Ave)
I'm going to start a regular vlog in the next couple months. Keep your eyes peeled! It's going to be a smorgasbord of things that interest me, published in vlog form! You can find me under the tag MezzoNerd once it's live. For now, get a sneak peek at my title sequence:
From before I was born, you have been a master at manipulating my emotions. From Mufasa, to Bambi's mom, to The Fox and the Hound, with its deeply dissatisfying ending and surprising nuance that was totally lost on me as a child, you have been toying with my feelings. And don't even get me started on the beginning of Up (I'm not crying YOU'RE crying). I've loved it. I've grown up on your ideals of who I should be as a woman, I've always played princess. I owned a beautiful collection of VHS tapes as a child, and still watch your new releases. When you merged with Pixar I was ecstatic that two amazing powerhouses were joining artistic forces, and you did not disappoint. However, you have begun one type of emotional manipulation that I do not appreciate, cannot stand, and will not accept: queerbaiting.
I was going to see your new live-action Beauty and the Beast. That was my absolute favorite movie as a young child. As an extremely nerdy brunette, who always had at least two fiction books in my backpack and another six under my pillow, who was shunted to the fringes of the cool kids' social circles, I totally identified with Belle. I still get chills and tear up when I watch the gorgeous opening sequence. This movie means a lot to me. Then, it came out that one of the characters was gay. "Finally," I thought, "Cogsworth will have his day." Haha nope. It turns out that LeFou is the gay one. "Okay," I thought, "that could make sense. I wish it wasn't one of the villains, though." As more and more details and statements leaked, I became more skeptical. Vague statements about a "moment" were circulating. A "moment" is about the smallest amount of time one can devote to a subject, so that was the biggest red flag, and the terminology surrounding the whole thing did not make me feel better, since "gay moment" is an actual trope. Queer people have been seeking out "moments" in entertainment since time immemorial, so that's a pretty minimal commitment, since the community was bound to find a gay moment anyway (for example in the original, when Gaston talks about his DEEEEcorAAAting, or any glance between Kirk and Spock in the Star Trek franchise).
Then the movie actually came out. Everyone who saw it said that the moment was literally a moment, and that the gayness was cliche. I was so disappointed. I knew the hype was for publicity, but I was hoping to be proved wrong. I still might see this film, but I'm no longer in any hurry.
I don't expect you to be progressive on this front; I know better than that. But please don't pretend.
I have a confession: there are a buttload of operas, some of them standard, some of them obscure, that I haven't seen in their entirety. Like, a helluva lot. I've listened to some of them, but the magic of opera is in the Gesamtkunstwerk. Most of them, I'm just not particularly interested because there aren't any good mezzo roles in them (unfortunate truth). Like, I hadn't seen Boheme in its entirety until the summer of '16. SO. I'm going to track my list of operas I want to watch in this post. I'll update it as I think of them and move them to the list at the bottom as I check them off. If you have recommendations for certain operas or productions, lay 'em on me! I'll let you know if I've already seen it, but I've seen so many operas that I don't feel like torturing myself trying to list them all here. Maybe I'll start adding ones I've seen as I feel like it/remember. I've seen so much, but there is SO MUCH MORE. GUYS, THERE'S SO MUCH OPERA. :D
Dido and Aeneas
Abduction from the Seraglio (Mozart)
Der Schauspieldirektor (Mozart)
Orpheus in the Underworld (Offenbach)
Eugene Onegin (Tchaik)
The Maid of Orleans (Tchaik)
Pique Dame (Tchaik)
Die Freischutz (Weber)
The Ring Cycle (Wagner)
Arabella (R. Strauss)
Capriccio (R. Strauss)
Die Frau ohne Schatten
Salome - LIVE (I've seen it on film)
Tristan und Isolde
Turn of the screw
The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny
Dead Man Walking (Heggie)
Little Women (Adamo)
Dr. Atomic (Adams)
Einstein on the Beach (Glass)
Prince of Players (Floyd)
Fantastic Mr. Fox (Picker)
Frankenstein (Libby Larsen)
Things I've seen (hella incomplete, don't judge me yet):
Orfeo ed Euridice
Le nozze di Figaro
Ariadne auf Naxos
The Flying Dutchman
L'amour de Loin
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
Meistersinger von Nurenberg
The Little Prince
Nixon in China
La Clemenza di Tito
Tales of Hoffmann
Il Barbiere di Siviglia
L'enfant et les sortileges
Fanciulla del West
Maria Stuarda (Donizetti)
Romeo et Juliette
I Capuleti e i Montecchi
La finta giardiniera (Mozart)
Così fan tutte
Die Zauberflöte (my first! I had a friend asleep on each shoulder by 10 minutes in)
Sweets by Kate (Griffin Candey)
L'Italiana in Algeri
Le Comte Ory
Sir John in Love
Pelleas et Melisandre
Higglety Pigglety Pop!
Breaking the Waves (Mazzoli)
Baby Shower (Bruce Trinkley)
Falstaff (WITH BRYN TERFEL!!!)
The Merry Widow (sexist)
Les mamelles des Tiresias
Your vote is important.
Yes, if you live in a staunchly red or blue state your vote will probably not affect the outcome. But you know what it will affect? Demographic statistics. You know who pays attention to those? Elected politicians at every level. You know what happens when your demographic makes a good showing? They cater to you. You showing up makes it easier for those who lobby for your interests full-time to get things done. Please show up and vote.
This election is important.
This is the election where we stop the globally-rising tide of neo-conservatism, of hate, of discrimination and exclusion, of radical reactionaries. This is where we counter the Boris Johnsons and Rodrigo Dutertes of the world and make a stand for equality, love, and inclusion on our own soil. This is where we look forward, to a future where our children and grandchildren have quality education and socioeconomic mobility. To a future where every American is healthy. To a future where minorities no longer live in fear.
This election is revealing.
When you vote for Trump, you are telling those around you what you think of them. You may tell yourself that you're voting for him because he's better than Clinton, he's not in Wall Street's pocket, he tells it like it is, he's a revolutionary coming in from outside the corrupt political system to fix it, he fights for the American Way, he'll bring jobs back to middle America, he's the working-class choice, he'll let you keep your guns, he has your best interests at heart. However, what other people hear is that you don't care about those around you, especially those who are different from you. You don't care about women, racial minorities, religious minorities, poor people, or the LGBT+/Queer Community. You are telling those people that they are second-class citizens, that their basic right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is not important. You are telling them you do not hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal. This view seems extreme, I know. You love these people. You have friends among these groups. You've cried with them, laughed with them, hugged them. That's why they find it so shocking and hurtful that you would elect someone to the highest office in the U.S. who does not believe they deserve the consideration and love you've shown them. That person you're voting for is not like you. Why would you identify with him? It baffles those who know you best, and makes them question what your true beliefs are. Although many elections are decided on the basis of specific policies, this election has devolved into an ideological debate, due to the polarized nature of the candidates and rhetoric. This time, your ideology is on trial. It's harsh, and maybe you like Trump's economic policy or something, but that's not what those around you hear. They hear that economics are more important to you than civil rights.
When you don't vote, you are telling these people the same thing. You may say you're protesting because there's no winning with candidates like these, that they're "equally horrible", but that's not the point. If you wait for the perfect candidate to come along, whose views and policies exactly align with yours, you better get your ass into politics because that's the only way that's going to happen. Also, they're not equally horrible. You know better than that. Come on.
I love each and every one of you, and I'm looking forward to moving towards an indivisible nation with liberty and justice for all.
My day job is at a financial firm. It's quite old-school, socially. The majority of high-level employees are white males. The entirety of the admin staff is female. However, there is a ray of hope...
I sit near two young analysts. One of them is putting together a recruitment dinner. He's insisting on having a female analyst join them. He's been reaching out to literally every woman on his team. For one reason or another, none of the women can join, but it's really great to hear this finance bro really making a concerted, deliberate effort to put together a diverse group. It gives me hope for the future.
David McVicar directed a production of Händel's Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne in 2005. It starred Sarah Connolly and Danielle de Niese, and was set in 19th-century colonial Egypt. Some kind soul uploaded a complete version of it to YouTube, although it has since been taken down. A while back, I watched the entire opera, absolutely loved it, then proceeded to read the comments. I recently rediscovered a document where I had recorded some of those comments. While there were many many positive comments, there were a few people who wrote that the "absurd modern production" was "a disaster" and the opera was "spoilt".
I honestly don't empathize with their objections.
I understand what they are driving at: they want opera productions to be historically accurate and serve the composer's music first and foremost. These traditionalists are necessary because they constantly challenge new choices, which encourages the innovators to really think through their choices and make sure they make sense instead of doing something just for the sake of being the first person to do it. They are a valuable part of the artistic and historical dialogue in the opera world. However, I despise the immediate dismissal of anything that attempts to approach a work in a new way. They have a bad habit of using the fact that something isn't historically accurate to justify their personal dislike for a production. They have a resistance to just saying, "this didn't speak to me," possibly for fear of seeming uncultured. It is fine to dislike a production, or even an opera. Operas span hundreds of years; there is bound to be at least one era or composer that rubs you the wrong way, in the same way that one of the hundreds of stagings of a repertory opera will not work for you. Some of them are truly bizarre. That is all fine. But don't invalidate someone else's approach. This Cesare was not even close to the most ridiculous production I've seen. Hardly any of the choices detracted from the opera and many enhanced it. Go pick on the one where Cecilia Bartoli sings "V'adoro, pupille" astride a missile like everyone else.
Have the women in your life ever told you of their experiences shopping for bras? Every woman has many stories about this and they are all different. Some women have had traumatic experiences. Others have had lots of fun. The stories vary from instance to instance and woman to woman, but it is a universal experience.
While your female acquaintance was telling you this story, what did you do? Did you interrupt her to tell her that bra didn’t mean to cut into her shoulders? Did you point out that she should have chosen a different cup size when she told you about one that was too big? Probably not, because you know she is aware of these things. Did you tell her she didn’t hate bra-shopping at all, that she secretly liked it? Probably not, because you trust her to know her own feelings. Maybe you asked questions about parts of her story to gain a better frame of reference. How are bras sized? Why is one brand better than another? How much do bras even cost? Why do you need them in different colors and styles? I’m guessing that mostly you listened to her story and interjected sympathetic noises or comments in the appropriate places, because this is a thing you really have no personal experience with. You can think about it all you want, but the specific realities probably elude you.
Perhaps you have gone bra shopping with a woman. You have a better grasp of what happens than most men. However, you do not know the whole story. Perhaps you sat right outside her dressing room, hearing her make various noises and comments, possibly having her poke her head out and go ‘oh my god, look at this one!’ You were not with her in the stall though. More likely, you sat outside on a couch especially for waiting, playing on your phone. You watched her walk in with fifteen bras and emerge victorious with two, unaware of the process she went through in order for that to happen. Maybe you had the amazing opportunity to be in the dressing room with her, watching her take bras on and off and watching her experience and thought process. You are a very lucky man (for more than the obvious reasons) and you have a very intimate view of what she goes through. However, your experience is still fundamentally different because it’s NOT YOUR BRA. You observed and now you have a much better understanding. Hopefully you empathize. You can now tell men the secret struggles and joys. Congratulations. Remember that most men do not have your perspective and you have an opportunity educate them on the (in this case awesome and probably titillating) reality. Your story, however, will still be different than the woman’s. Let her tell hers.
Men, when you hear a woman talking about feminism or being a woman, please listen and remember it’s not your bra.
I am currently polishing the aria "Nobles seigneurs, salut!" from Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots. In true French Grand Opera style, the aria is flashy, with good amounts of coloratura. One passage defeated me when I first approached this aria. This one:
It isn't very long and it goes by very quickly. Hearing other people sing it, I never noticed it sounding particularly difficult, but when I was learning it, it made no sense to me. I had a very hard time getting it in my voice. I practiced that one passage over and over again, slowly, then breaking it apart and singing only certain notes. I analyzed the crap out of it. Every interval, every possible imaginary chord underneath (the orchestra drops out on this cadenza), every way I could possibly dissect it. I put in the work and felt like I was getting nowhere.
After working on that cadenza every day for a week, I let it go. I walked away from it. I practiced the other parts of the aria and left that passage alone. Then I went into my lesson a week or two later. We sang through the aria, and I was so concentrated on implementing a new idea I didn't realize the passage was coming. I sang it perfectly. I got to the end of the cadenza and thought, "Oh wow, that just happened. Holy shit, I did it!" I listened to the recording later; it sounded easy.
What I'm trying to say, chickadees, is: Put in the work, then walk away for a bit. Beat yourself up all you want during the difficult parts, but trust that your self-flagellation is not in vain. You will learn it. Do your homework and give yourself time.
Maayan is a Manhattan-based opera singer.