October 26, 2010

John Mewburn Levien

When he died in 1951 at the age of 90, John Mewburn Levien had the distinction of being one of Manuel Garcia's last pupils, having studied with the great maestro during the last year of his life.  Well primed for his studies, Levien had been taught the Old Italian School by Vannuccini and Charles Santley, Garcia's friend and student.  



Like Garcia's more well-known protégé Herman Klein, Levien carried his master's teaching into the 20th century, writing about singers, singing and the Garcia family in a number of slender volumes.  Like Klein, he also taught voice.   

Lucie Manén, who was a student of Anna E. Schoen-Rene (the latter a student of Pauline Viardot-Garcia and Manuel Garcia), referenced Levien in her book Bel Canto: The Teaching of the Italian Classical Song-Schools, Its Decline and Restoration, making the point that Garcia never taught students to sing with the facial resonators, in her mind, a terrible thing.  This, she declared, after quizzing the elderly Levien about the matter.

Readers of this blog will know that Garcia, while determining the vocal tube from glottis to mouth as the only real resonator, nevertheless had a concept of vocal placement in the 'mask'.  As such, this writer has always found it interesting that the father of voice science wrote about the pharynx as being a 'reflector', a telling choice of words. One will have to read Manén to understand more of the particulars. However, suffice it to say that matters of 'voice placement' caused as much consternation among Garcia exponents then as they do now.   

October 20, 2010

A Quiet Place

The current OUT magazine contains a fascinating article on Leonard Bernstein and his opera A Quiet Place, which is being mounted in a new production at The New York City Opera.

A Quiet Place was premiered at the Houston Grand Opera smack in the middle of Reagan's America ('83), and found something of a 'Don't Ask Don't Tell' reception, seeing that the plot involved a ménage with a gay man, draft dodging, probably suicide, alcoholism, infidelity, a funeral, the miasma of suburbia, and most importantly, a father's relationship with his son.  Not your typical Maria and Tony story.  Produced a few more times, the piece drifted off into the operatic ether until now, that is, our Six-Feet-Under age.

While the subject matter may have been a hard sell, Bernstein's writing is another matter.  The work is searingly beautiful, and full of Bernstein being....well...Bernstein: funny, jazzy, dissonant, cathartic, anguished and elegiac. Having heard it in rehearsal (I am in the production), I agree with George Steel, the general director of NYCO, and Christopher Alden the stage director, that the opera's time is now.  Who loves whom, marries whom, father and sons, sons to sons, and 6 recent suicides of gay young men are smack in the middle of our faces.  More than Bernstein's autobiography,  A Quiet Place is about love.

Go see it if you can.  It won't be around very long. 

You can read the OUT article here.



October 19, 2010

Sing Large With Small Bodies

It's been talked about since Maria Callas slimmed down to resemble the glamorous Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's and subsequently had vocal problems. Was it the weight loss itself, or the resulting loss of muscles mass that accompanied it? One suspects the latter. Without mention of Callas, this topic came to the forefront in an interview that Dame Kiri te Kanawa gave to the BBC. You can watch it here. Her line "sing large with small bodies" jumped out at me. Is it true? Are singers being asked to sing large and be model thin? Yes. I think it's an accurate assessment. My own observation is that this is a result of the ever-growing mania for cinematic 'realism' onstage. We want the fantasy, not only of hearing beautiful sounds from singers, but the additional kick of hearing it from god-like bodies and faces.


 Audrey Hepburn


This is nothing new. Some time ago, I read an account of Richard Wagner insulting the great contralto Marianne Brandt - a student of the legendary Pauline Viardot-Garcia - after her onstage audition with full orchestra, denouncing her as 'ugly'. She ran from the theater, returning only when Viardot-Garcia demanded Wagner's public apology, which he gave. One wonders if Brandt could have the career today she had during her own era.


Marianne Bandt


Men aren't immune to the desire for the body beautiful onstage either, as evidenced in blogs such as Barihunk, which extol beautiful voices in muscled bodies. But I wonder if a kind of body fascism is involved. I have only to remember my first fitting at The New York City Opera where I was told that I was hired because 1) I could sing 2) looked good and 3) fit the costume.

There's no business like show business.

October 12, 2010

Joan & Jackie

A funny and informative interview with Marilyn "Jackie" Horne and Joan Sutherland from Life Magazine '70 can be read here - A Tour of Two Great Throats.  You'll want to scroll a few pages up to the read it from the beginning. I stumbled upon this article in the process of looking for more information on Sutherland's mother. The NYTimes obit stated that she studied with Mathilde Marchesi, which seemed a bit of a stretch.




And indeed it is. After a trip to the library when no online sources were forthcoming, I learned that Sutherland's mother studied with Burns Walker, a student of Nellie Melba (Singers of Australia by Barbara & Findlay Mackenzie, 1967).  It was Melba who had studied with Mathilde Marchesi

But back to the Life article.  Sutherland and Horne sound like two pals chumming and hamming it up for the interviewer; making comments about weight, the trials of being onstage, audiences, and all manner of things including vocal technique.

If you know where to look, you can find just about anything.

October 11, 2010

Joan Sutherland

The voice of of a century is gone.  She was 83.

I was lucky to have heard her live at Avery Fisher Hall with the New York Philharmonic in a concert version of Anna Bolena.  Her voice?  Though late in her career, I have never forgotten how it hovered in front of my face even though I was high up in the last row of the house.  It shimmered, glowed, and had a radiance that made me realize why the Italians called her "La Stupenda."





I also saw Sutherland give a masterclass/interview at The Juilliard School after she had retired. And though she did not seem to know how to teach her art to others, one observed that she knew—perhaps more than anyone of her time—the traditions of bel canto.

She could do it.

Talking about Sutherland with my husband at lunch today, he reminded me of a previous conversation we had about her voice, insofar as the vocal tone having an unusual acoustic property recognized by those who build organs. What is that property? To give an organ pipe a more luminous singing tone, pipes are designed to reinforce the octave overtone.  Sutherland's 'pipes'—one might say, had this in great evidence, that is a very different sound than is heard in voices that reinforce the 'third.'  The latter sounds reedy. Brigit Nilson's voice comes to mind here. 

Hers was a special voice. A great voice. And from a technical standpoint, a flawless one.  I count myself fortunate to have heard it with my own ears.  

The New York Times Obit can be read here.

October 8, 2010

Mysterious Margery

I found a most curious item in my inbox recently: a photograph of Margery Booth sent by Russ Parry (aka Frankie Berlin), who lives in the same Lancashire town of Southport that Margery grew up in (see my previous post on the contralto turned spy here). It was given to Parry's great aunt who was a friend of Margery's before the war. After the war?  Margey's efforts on behalf of Britain went unrecognized, and she endured the unfair assumption of having cooperated with the Nazis. Not able to find employment singing, she moved to New York.

Did she sing in New York?  It is hard to know. There is no evidence that she sang at the Metropolitan Opera or with The New York City Opera. However, we do know that she died here at the age of 47, having left Britain already stricken with cancer. Curiously, in 1935, she sang for a benefit at the Christie Cancer Hospital and Holt Radium Institute at the Palace Theatre in London. 




Miss Margery Booth

The death occurred in New York on Saturday of Margery Booth, the opera singer who was born in Wigan and who sang at the Berlin State Opera during the War.  Miss Booth was formerly married to a German brewer, Dr. Egon Strohm, but the marriage was dissolved.  After singing on the Continent, she made her first appearance at Covent Garden in 1936, and when the war began she was singing in Berlin. She remained there, and the Germans believed that she had pro-Nazi sympathies.

Her sympathies, however, were with the Allies, and when she sang at a British prisoner-of-war camp she passed on to the camp leader information she had obtained from Nazi officials.  As a result several escapes were successfully organized.  When the camp leader, Batterly Quartermaster-Sergent Owen Brown, was suspected by the Gestapo of complicity Miss Booth took charge of his documents. After the war she said she never let them out of her sight, and when she sang on the stage she used to hid them in her costume.   Manchester Guardian, April 14, 1952. 



What else do old newspapers tell us about Margery? We know that she studied at the Guildhall school (did she study with Herman Klein who taught there?), and when she appeared at the Promenade Concerts at Royal Albert Hall in 1935, had already been singing in Germany for nine years. In Berlin in 1932, she was noted as having a voice "reminiscent of the old Italian school." Curiously, another "old Italian school" singer was also taken note of in the same article. That was Charles Kullman, a student of Anna E. Schoen-René, who has appeared on these pages. In 1936, Margery opened the season at Covent Garden singing in Die Meistersinger, afterward appearing at Bayreuth until 1939.

Now to the photo. It's a far cry from the one that was sold at auction, where Booth was captured (in more ways than one) smiling and looking rather chic. This one is glamorous, recalling the era of Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Gloria Swanson and Mary Pickford, all stars of the silver screen. It's also intense and somewhat surreal. Booth looks into one's soul, or her own, with a determined yet questioning expression, not unlike Carmen,  a role she sang with success. Judging from the length of her hair, it was only a few years before she was singing with state secrets stuffed in her costume.

Special thanks to Russ Parry for revealing more of Margery Booth. 

October 4, 2010

Folds in 4

My colleague Elem Eley, who teaches at Westmintster Choir College, made me aware of this video recently. After seeing it,I knew immediately that I wanted to post it here. We hear the singing voice all the time, but so rarely see it in action, much less in quadruplicate.

Seeing the vocal folds (the creator of the video calls them 'cords' which is now considered dated), in this way may be the closest we can come to the same wonder Manuel Garcia experienced in 1855.

Isn't it amazing that such beauty can come from something no bigger than your thumbnail?