Can Belto

On the art of singing and those who practice it…

Giorgio Tozzi Remembered

A dear friend of mine who wishes to remain anonymous, let’s call him LeporBBello,  just sent me this remembrance. It is so beautifully written that I want to share it with you. Whatever I could say about Maestro, it all pales in the face of  the remembrance of someone who was in his presence on a daily basis.

Take it over LeporBBello:

Giorgio Tozzi was one of the most beautiful artistic flowers to bloom out of the social desert created by two world wars and the Great Depression. He sang originally out of necessity to feed his parents and family, and became operatic legend. He was a true “American” artist, living in popular medium as comfortably as the grandest operatic repertoire. Due to an injury two years into his  twenty year Met career, he needed to perceive pitch by “feel” rather than by it’s sound, making his considerable artistic accomplishments even more inconceivable.

There are few artists in whom one can hear as much pure humanity in the sound – he was a man born to communicate. To spend a moment with this man was to be forever changed, and he will be greatly missed by everyone who ever met him.

Giorgio loved music. He loved the human form, and depictions of it in photographs and painting. Giorgio hated liberalism with a passion, and loved to talk about it. He loved his mother and father. Giorgio loved his wife Monte deeply and rarely let his frustration over her own declining health show. He loved his children and grandchildren, and spoke of them with great pride.

Giorgio loved to write, and did so as cleverly as he spoke. Giorgio had a temper. He loved gadgets – his home office was cluttered with computers he had grown tired of, surrounded by digital cameras. He loved American Musical Theater, and hated the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Giorgio wasn’t a drinker, but loved a “Manhattan Cocktail with Canadian Club”. Giorgio had no uvula – it had been removed by a doctor in his youth, along with his tonsils…he didn’t know why. Giorgio hated cd reissues of his recordings. He preferred the mono version of his Figaro. Giorgio hated getting old and wasn’t afraid to say it. Giorgio told the best stories and made even corny jokes funny.

Being a singer who knows Giorgio Tozzi meant that you knew you could do it – you knew you could do it because he did it, and you were just like him…and you knew this because he told you so every time he saw you. There was no more positive man towards a young singer than this man – you felt this positivity until you opened up one of his recordings and actually tried to imitate what he was able to do. His legato was unparalleled, his diction was flawless, his sound was warm and uniquely human, and his stage acting was natural and deeply moving before it was a necessary goal of an operatic artist. He was an unusually humble man, particularly considering his amazing gifts.

For my part, today I lost something with no definition or descriptive words. Father, mentor, friend…role model?…forget these silly words we use to describe ordinary people – Giorgio Tozzi is otherworldly. He lives on in every person he touched and continues to touch in his peerless recordings, the numerous artists who were able to receive his message in person as pupils, and in the hearts of those fortunate enough to witness his artistry in person.

Giorgio was a genuine gentleman, and I am proud to have been his friend.


This was the man within the legend and the reason so many mourn his passing today

May 31, 2011 Posted by | In memoriam | 2 Comments

Adieu Giorgio Tozzi

Maestro Giorgio Tozzi


What can I tell you about Giorgio Tozzi that you don’t already know? If you are an opera buff, the name alone means “golden age,” so what could I possibly say about him that has not been said, written or spoken somewhere?

Maestro (that is what I called him since the day I met him) was one of the sweetest men I ever met. I had the honor of being in his presence for the first time in September 1993, when as a first year graduate student at IU I had been cast as Arturo in Lucia di Lammermoor; he happened to be the director. Me, being young, immature and not well informed, had no idea who Giorgio Tozzi was. That’s when I went into a little reading spree and realized what a lucky little bastard I was. I was in the presence of one of the most gifted American Bassos of his generation.

From then on, I was starstruck and to the day I left IU, I never stopped being starstruck by him. Maestro was incredibly supportive, there was not one general audition that he didn’t come to me to talk to me and provide me with feedback and words of encouragement. Even in my darkest moments, I could count on Maestro to brighten up my day and make me feel I counted. Even though I never spent one day as his student, he never stopped being my mentor, because  he never stopped being like a guardian angel, ready with a word of encouragement whether needed or not.

As special as this man was, the greatest moment I spent in his presence, was not in private, but where he belonged. IU was doing a production of Fidler on the Roof and somehow coaxed him out of retirement to sing the role of Tevye. The popularity of the show pretty much guaranteed sold out performances and when it came to it, I could not get a ticket, so the only way I could see the show was as an usher. Sitting on the stairs of orchestra section, I experienced the art of Giorgio Tozzi, the man in his element and the element within this man. I still had tears in my eyes when I went to greet him in the green room after the performance. Now that will be my favorite memory of him, as Tevye, as he extends his hand to the fiddler at the end of the show and slowly walks off followed by him.

Now the Maestro is dead. Not only has opera lost one of its luminaries, we have lost a friend, a mentor, a guardian angel, a smile, a joke, a hug; shit, we’ve lost maestro. Our lives are a little less sunny and our singing a bit sadder; we have lost Maestro.

Luckily for us, Giorgio Tozzi and his legacy live beyond his recording or South Pacific. Thankfully, RCA had his artistry at their disposition and they used him in several sets where his aristocratic sound gave life to more than one father, soldier, king or confidante. Those recordings are easily accessible and downloading them at iTunes or Amazon is a piece of cake.

What is not a piece of cake to find are some of the recordings he made for MORC, including his Boris and his extended highlights of Nozze di Figaro. Thanks to the tenacity and love of collector extraordinaire Mike Richter, those were preserved in his CD-Rom dedicated to the MORC and for those who would like to experience Tozzi in his absolute prime, here he is first as Boris and then as Figaro. Thanks to Mike as well, we can experience Tozzi as Figaro’s nemesis in a performance of Il Barbiere di Siviglia from Teatro Colon in 1969.

I think it would be all to easy to past here several of his performances available on YouTube, but instead of that, I am going to use someone else’s voice and music. I am going to let Leonora in La Forza del destino be the one to send you off, dear Maestro, as you start your journey to eternity:

La vergine degli angeli ti copra del suo manto
E te protegga vigile Di dio l’angelo santo

May the Queen Angels cover you with her mantle,
and vigilantly protect you the holy angel of God.

Thank you Maestro Tozzi. We love you and we will miss you.

May 31, 2011 Posted by | In memoriam | 2 Comments

Elizabeth Caballero + Violetta Valeri = Match made in heaven

Giuseppe Varano and Elizabeth Caballero in Madison Opera's La Traiata. Photo Credit: James Gil

Madison Wisconsin residents were given a huge treat this weekend when their local company closed their Golden Anniversary Season with Verdi’s La Traviata. After a series of auditions in Chicago, my significant other and I trekked in that direction to see the opening night performance. Let me tell you something, that long drive was so worth it.

My first impression as I entered Overture Hall, the performing space that Madison Opera uses was OMG, I would kill to sing here. The hall is gorgeous in a modern sensibility, not too big as to overwhelm the voices and not too small as to render the space uncomfortably intimate. The seats are very comfortable and believe it or not, you can connect to the internet from the comfort of your seat; which makes tweating and facebooking about your experience instant. Needless to say, I took advantage of the opportunity during intermissions (duh!) and I have to say I loved it. Now, how many of you guys can say that you were able to tweet right from your seat? I know, I know, it might seem like the end of the world to some of you, but remember, the new generation is the “instant gratification” generation. Anything that will bring a tushie to a seat to enjoy the art form I love is a good strategy so kudos to the management of Overture Hall for their vision.

Cuban soprano Elizabeth Caballero

The reason for me being there, and I freely admit it was the presence of soprano Elizabeth Caballero as Violetta Valeri, the courtesan who sacrifices herself for the well being of a pampered young girl with a close minded father and fiancee. If you remember well, I first saw Caballero live in the role of Nedda in KY opera and I was blown over. We had remained in contact since and a frienship has been blossoming. Since Traviata is my all time favorite opera, I had to see Caballero in the role no mater what. You can take whatever I say with a grain of salt, given how you already know she is a friend or you can wait until the broadcast in NPR World of Opera this Summer to realize that what I am saying is accurate; you decide…

Point is that Elizabeth Caballero gave an amazing performance of the role of Violetta. There was no weak moment, her singing of the role went from strength to strength in a performance that is better described as devastating. After the first act, my reaction was that Caballero was not even making it fair for other sopranos in the role right now. After acts II and III my first impression was conformed and I have to say that her Violetta stands on equal footing as some of the great Violettas of this generation and past ones. There was simply not one spot where I thought she was having a tough time coping! After seeing her in the role, I just have no desire to experience either Netrebko or Poplavskaya, 2 sopranos that seem to be gathering a lot of attention for the role, and some of it not for the right reasons.  I simply can not think of any soprano who can surpass Caballero in the ease of coloratura and still retain the lyric qualities to be successful in the heavy passages of act II and be able to spin an Addio del passato that left me looking at the stage through the glassy veil of tears. I simply can not see this role being better sung by almost anyone; specially the Russian flavors of the month Peter Gelb at the Met seems to be so enamored with.

If her singing has been this good and the acting sucked, at least I would have had a reason to find fault. The issue is that just as her singing was glorious, her acting was in par with her singing. There was not a gesture out of place, not a movement, not a glance. During act I she remained aware that the clock was ticking away on her but this did not mean some kind of “fate” acting; instead she remained appropriately youthful and carefree. In act II, she grew in stature as she had to confront both Germonts. Act III was first a cry of desperation and finally a love letter to the woman she knows will eventually replace her in Alfredo’s heart.

Italian tenor Giuseppe Varano

Talking about Alfredo, the April 29th performance marked the American debut of Italian tenor Giuseppe Varano. It is my understanding that even though we had never heard him in our side of the Atlantic, he is already a seasoned Alfredo with more than 30 performances of the role under his belt. I wish I could report that this was a happy occasion for Mr. Varano. Who among us wouldn’t want our debut in an opera house, let alone in a country be the stuff of legends? Unfortunately Mr. Varano had some health issues related to the acidity of our food (specially American tomatoes) that affected his voice. I think it would be unfair to go in detail about what went on because, well, the faster he forgets about it the better.

If there is any consolation, I hope someone tells him that Pavarotti’s high C cracked like a firework in his Met debut yet look at where he stands in history. Now, not everything is sad news in my report of Mr. Varano. While we have to admit that we might have not heard the quality of singing that brought him to the USA, we still saw the quality of the acting and in that, he remained committed. His Alfredo remained passionate, if a little overacted. I have a feeling that him being in survival mode had some to do with some of his dramatic choices. His voice is perfect for the role and in a moment of small victory, he willed his way through a very successful O mio rimorso (the cabaletta to Dei miei bolenti). The fact that he didn’t attempt the high C did not bother me at all. I hope his next performances in the USA will be under better circumstances and that he will soon be able to laugh at this moment in his career. Certainly he has an interesting story to tell his grand-kids, when he has them. Welcome to America Mr. Varano.

Donnie Ray Albert as Germont perre, Elizabeth Caballero as Violetta and Allisanne Apple as Annina. Photo credit James Gill

The role of Giorgio Germont was filled by American baritone and Grammy award winner Donnie Ray Albert. Mr. Albert might be a familiar name to some in great part due to his recording of the role of Porgy for RCA in conjunction to a series of performances of the opera in Houston many, many moons ago. It was nice to be able to experience the art of Mr. Albert 16 years after I shared the stage with him (as a chorister) in a Cincinnati Opera Aida that saw him as Amonastro.

Just like his Amonastro 16 years ago, Mr. Albert commanded the stage and sounded amazing in a role that some baritones around his age drop because it is getting a little too high. His confrontation with Violetta found him a little uncomfortable with this woman who all of a sudden was behaving in too familiar way with him, yet when it was time to scold his son in the next scene, he found himself not looking at his son, but walking to Violetta to teach the younger Germont how a lady is to be treated. Mr. Albert’s singing remains as impressive as ever. He is a masterful technician and after singing heavy Verdi roles for the good part of 25 years, he barely sounded like he had to work hard to sing this role.

The performance was conducted with masterful precision and great support by John DeMain, whose beat was never anything less than precise and visible. There were no missing cues that I can remember nor was there any instances of singers or chorus being behind or ahead of the beat. His control of the orchestra was absolute and they performed for him like they were serenading the love of their life. This orchestra, my first time hearing them, impressed me for the beauty of the sound and the control of the dynamics. The support they gave the singer was nothing short of perfection and Madison opera is lucky to have such a wonderful orchestra at their disposition; a big bravo to the maestro and the maestros in the orchestra. The same thing needs to be said about the Madison Opera Chorus, who under the direction of Anthony Cao (who also sang the messenger in Act II-i) supported the principals beautifully. Their singing was precise in act I, like a soft cushion during the concertato that ends act II and appropriately rowdy in the short offstage chorus in act III.

And while we are at it, we must mention all the wonderful singers who took on small, yet not unimportant supporting roles in the show. Honor mention must go to Jamie van Eyck for her feisty and wonderfully sung Flora. Just as much praise must also be reserved for Heath Rush, whose Gastone showed a voice capable of dealing with heavier assignments than this and a color or a future Don Jose. Jeremy Kelly, Paul Rowe, Gregory Brumfield, Allisanne Apple, Joshua Sanders and Glen Siferd all shone brightly in their respective assignments of the Marquis, Duphol, Grenvil, Annina, Giuseppe the gardener, and the servant. Bravi to all for a job well done.

The show, performed on the sets and costumes  designed by Desmond Heeley owned by Chicago Lyric Opera and wonderfully lit (if a little too red in spots) by Christine A. Binder (the original light designer) was directed with conviction by Garnett Bruce. Mr. Bruce did not give us cardboard cut-outs but living and breathing people. His direction was rich in detail I (like Giorgio discovering how Violetta had kept his letter all this time), yet free enough that the singer never looked stiff. If there was any complaint was how he tended to keep some of the minor characters on stage longer than they needed to be; like Annina, and the gardener hanging on stage during what was obviously a very private conversation between the mistress of the house and the gentleman who showed up unannounced. Surely, if they noticed her reactions, why did they not get involved? I also wish he would have softened the character of Germont father and created a better stage picture during his aria. I have longed for a long time to see a Germont sing Di Provenza not to the audience or to the emptiness but to his son either as he holds the crying Alfredo in his arms or as he strikes his hair while the heartbroken man cries on his lap or on a chair. All these are but minor quibbles in a show that was directed with such expertise by Mr. Bruce.

Let me tell you people, I am glad I took this detour and went to see the show. Not only that, I hope I will get to see more performances in this city. Not only is the venue gorgeous, the city has a vibe that made me fall in love with it. All in all, I could have not been more impressed with what I saw, heard and experienced.

Next year Madison opera will be performing Onegin, Cenerentola and Phillip Glass’ Galileo and I can not encourage you enough to visit them if you are in the city. More information about their 51st season can be found in their website. If you can not wait, there will be a concert featuring Soprano Maria Kanyova (among others) on July 16th that is free and you can also find details in their website or by sending an email to them.

Lastly, I want to send a big hug to some very nice people who I met during my stay in Madison. Being a friend of the diva had its perks and through her I was invited to a small gathering of a club named Out at the Opera. O @ O is a group of gay opera fans that were hosting a fabulous party after the performance and I met some wonderful people there. They didn’t care I was not wearing a tux (I never do when I got to the opera) and they made me feel right at home, even in my jeans. If you are a Madison resident, and a member of the LGBT community, do contact the opera company and ask how can you join this group, you will not regret it.

And because there is no letter without a post script, Colorado residents and those who can attend performances in Central City should take note that Elizabeth Caballero is coming to your town. She will be singing Micaela this Summer with Central City Opera and Mimi next year. In between now and then, Kansas City will hear her as Liu and  Nashville as Nedda and if you are in those cities, you are forewarned…

Next is Traviata (again) in Indianapolis with the fabulous Maureen O’Flynn, and I can not wait!

May 3, 2011 Posted by | Opera Review | 1 Comment

Sometimes you are in the presence of art, and you know it

Last night, after I was done writing my article for Reality TV Calendar, I got an urge to listen to Camille Saint-Saëns’ beautiful Le cigne (the Swan) from The carnival of the animals. This happens to be one of my favorite pieces of music ever and one that realistically would be a great one to walk down the isle to; whenever that happens.

I am sure you know how Anna Pavlova, the legendary Russian Ballerina is forever attached to that piece of music. So among the versions I watched was of course, her painfully short clips that have influenced every interpretation of the piece for the past 100 years. I would say that the original choreography by  Mikhail Fokine is the single most dance choreography of the century; but that statement is not based on fact.


So, among the many traditional recreations I saw some where truly beautiful; and some added an element of irreverent fun, and yet the brilliance of the performer shone just as brightly:

What I was not prepared to encounter is a version making the rounds on YouTube for about a month courtesy of the Brazilian version of So You Think You can Dance. In it,John Lennon da Silva, a 20 year old student shows up dressed in a very urban attire and tells the judges he will do his own version of this classic but with the added twist of not being ballet at all, but in popping. The judges are incredulous and one even drills him with questions like “But you do understand this is a piece usually done by a ballerina, en point and dressed in white, right?”The kid seems unfazed by the whole thing, answer his questions and tells them he is determined to show his abilities. In the face of such determination, and undoubtely expecting the worse, one judge tells him “Well, good luck; I hope your dance is better than your attire, because your attire sucks.”

And the music starts, and the kid starts dancing.
Subtitles should be automatic, but if not click on “Watch on YouTube” and when you are there in the Close Captioning logo (CC)

Yes, sometimes you are in the presence of art and tears are the best response; don’t you think?

April 13, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Knoxville Opera Puritani: Nope they are not all hillbillies

Tennesee Theater, Home of Knoxville opera

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending Knoxville Opera‘s presentation of Bellini’s I Puritani. Yes, my dear friend Ronizetti and I drove 6 hours just so we could see the opera. The main attraction for us was to hear in the flesh American Coloratura Rachelle Gilmore who seems to be gathering laurel after laurel for her performances.

I am happy to say that Ms. Gilmore met and exceeded every expectation I had. Her Elvira was scrupulously (and scrumptiously) sung, beautifully acted; a complete success that was met with a standing ovation from a screaming audience. Ms. Gilmore’s voice is even through all the registers and she used them to great advantage up to a high F that rang to the audience like a laser.

Her legato was melting; and her ability in singing passagework had an almost insolent quality. It seems to me someone forgot to let Ms Gilmore know this role is extremely difficult to sing, as she sailed through the role like it has been composed just for her. Not only was her singing marvelous,  her Italian pronunciation veered on perfection; her entire performance veered on perfection! Her mad scene was met with a riot of bravos and with good reason. There are not enough good things I could say about her performance except: If she is announced in your town or close by, run to get tickets. If you, like me, are very picky about your singers, this is one you want to hear and soon.

Ms. Gilmore was partnered by Armenian tenor Yeghishe Manucharyan. Mr. Manucharyan has an ease with the high register that is enviable. His entrance aria, A te o cara was capped with a C# sung forte and then he performed a melting diminuendo that was both surprising and amazing. He also capped his Act III aria, Credea Misera with the written high F that has brought many a tenor to their knees. Mr. Manucharyan’s high F was again, sung in full voice and was exiting as all hell.

Alas, I wish I could say the rest of the performance was just as exiting as those two moments but the reality is that Mr. Manucharyan was a two trick pony: C# and F. The rest of the role was sung with what I am sure was meant to be a throwback style to resemble what some suppose was the way Rubbini sang it. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. The Tennessee theater is a very intimate venue for sure; when you can not be heard in such an intimate venue, you are in trouble and Mr. Manucharyan was very hard to hear for entire stretches.

The role of Riccardo Forth was sung by Cuban baritone Nelson Martinez.  His entrance aria had the desired effect to present the villain of the opera and set Mr. Martinez as a force to be recon with, not only physically, but vocally as well. Mr. Martinez was the other revelation of the afternoon. His voice is gorgeous and well projected. His acting could use some help, but with singing like this, complaining about someone acting seems almost risible. He and Daniel Mobbs made a highlight out of their act 2 duet Suoni la tromba.

Gilmore and Manucharyan as Elvira and Arturo

Speaking of Daniel Mobbs, the Kentucky native sang with distinction and authority as Giorgio. The one inconsistency I found in his performance was that he was made up to look like an old man but his acting retained the vigor of a much younger man. Why was he made up like an old man? There is nothing that says that Giorgio has to be in his 60’s or older. Vocally, Mr. Mobbs was fabulous in every way.

The cast was rounded up by mezzo Lorraine Di Dimone as Henrietta, who turned a passionate performance of this short role. I was fully expecting her to come back at the end dressed in full regal attire to give Arturo a pardon herself and I was disappointed she was not allowed the opportunity to do so by either Bellini or the director. Her singing was as enjoyable as the rest. There was a point during the Son vergin Vezzosa that she got into an acoustical hotspot on the stage and I kept getting the feeling she was singing right by my side.

The chorus of the Knoxville opera, after a somewhat shaky start, did a wonderful job in supporting the principals. Their singing was wonderful, precise, and passionate. What infuriated me, and I have to admit it, is how poorly they were used by stage director James Marvel. He chose to move them in lines or blocks, which rendered their positions resemble squares most of the time. This gave them an almost Greek chorus  quality that seemed off with their singing.

One thing that I know from experience is that the people from the chorus want to be used and challenged to create the atmosphere the principals need. The fact that James Marvel did not is almost an insult to the artists he had at his disposition. He could have created tableaus that were incredibly dramatic and could have used the chorus as individuals. What a pity that he chose to have the chorus stand in two straight lines for most of the time and to move them in exactly the same formations for the duration of the performance.

I am sorry to say this, but if there was a disappointing aspect to this afternoon was Jame’s Marvel staging. It was simplistic in some areas and it lacked dramatic impetus. Most of the time the principals looked like they were left to their own devices or just told to move about with very little meaning behind the movements. I am not sure if it was that he didn’t have enough time to work with the artists or if he just does not believe that opera can be a theatrical experience. It is indeed a pity because he had a group of artists ready to rise to the challenge as they demonstrated in several moments.

The production,designed by Ercole Sormani was a model of frugality. Mr. Sormani created marvels with painted backdrops, 5 chairs, 2 desks and a projector. Those who insist that the stage has to be cluttered with ornamental nothings should take a look at the production pictures for this opera. The costumes, rented from Utah Opera and designed by Susan M. Allred were traditional Puritan costumes except for some very un-Puritan colors and shades; all minor details since it is all make believe. Who cares whether Puritans wore green or red, really?

This leaves the orchestra and conductor Brian Salesky. In the merits of their performance Ronizetti and I were divided.  I thought the orchestra played fairly well; Ron, on the other hand thought the orchestra out of tune for long stretches. I also found some decibel issues with the orchestra.  The endings for Act I scenes 1 & 2 were particularly prominent because the singers were completely covered and all you could hear was a band-like sound coming from the pit. Ron thought this was forgivable given how small the theater is. I blame the conductor for not paying closer attention to the dynamics the orchestra played. Just because it is marked FF in the score it does not mean the orchestra has to rattle the chandelier in the lobby. I have always held the conviction that the dynamics are relative to the singer’s voice and the performing space.

This is not to say that Maestro Salesky thought he was conducting Salome. for most of the score, his support of the singers was very good. He allowed them and the music time to breathe and develop; which made this already discussed tendency to let the orchestra fly towards the end of scenes or acts all the more regrettable.

Overall, this was a marvelous experience enhanced by our stay in this beautiful city. As it turned out, Knoxville Opera scheduled this Puritanis to coincide with their Rossini Festival; a Saturday street fair with local and area artisans, great food and showcase performances by several performing organizations. Ronizetti and I had a chance to walk through for a couple of hours, since we arrived to Knoxville on Saturday. We enjoyed ourselves so thoroughly that we are already making plans to make it there for next year’s Rossini festival. As a matter of fact, we had so much fun that on the drive back we were lamenting Knoxville is not two or two and a half hours closer, as we would be regulars in the city. It was a lovely stay.

Although Knoxville Opera is done for the season, there are still some activities done to promote the operatic arts in the area. If you happen to be from Knoxville, or from a city close by, I encourage you to contact them and see how you can get involved, or even attend some of their events. We met with 2 lovely volunteers who were telling us about First Fridays, a monthly event where singers are taken to different and unexpected venues to promote the opera. Again, what a pity they are not closer, as I would love to participate. They were telling us how the event took place in a Chinese restaurant not too long ago.

Next year, Knoxville opera is presenting Traviata, Romeo et Juliette and Othello (This one timed to coicide with the Rossini Festival). I have a feeling that I will want to go see more than one performance.

Nope, Knoxville is not for hillbillies anymore.

April 11, 2011 Posted by | Opera Review | 10 Comments

Addio Maestro Paul Kiesgen

This is going to be hard…And the tears start to flow.

You are going to have to forgive me, but I am writing through tears. My voice teacher has died.

If you are not a singer, let me just say that you form a bond with your voice teacher that is very special. It is almost a paternal bond and a teacher is as protective of his teachers as a hen of her chicks. That is because that is exactly what we are, we are their chicks and no matter whether just a chorister or a world famous singer we will always be our teacher’s chicks.

I met Paul Kiesgen in 1998, when I was in need of a new voice teacher. My relationship with my former teacher had ended badly, I felt my voice was a wreck and I needed a new start.

That is when this wonderful man came into my life. He took me under his wings and started working with me with a lot of patience and a  good doze of love. During the 2 years that I studied with him I regained my confidence and the ease of my high notes.

What kills me is that he never knew. I never told him how important his help was in my vocal recovery. I owed him everything and I never told him. In my own self-centerdness, in my own selfishness I never took the time to tell him how important he had and was to me.

So you are going to have to forgive me because there is something I need to say, even if he will never be able to read this:


Thank you. Your help, your patience, your advise, your gentleness made a huge difference in my life and I owe you an eternal debt. Thank you, I could not be who I am now had you not taken an interest. Whether I am a success or a failure it is not a reflection on you but a result of my own decisions; the fact still remains that you were like a father figure when I needed one and I will remember that until the day I die.

Thank you maestro. Thank you for your guidance, for accepting me as difficult and opinionated as I was, and as full of myself as someone in their 20’s could be.

Rest in peace Maestro.


April 7, 2011 Posted by | In memoriam | 1 Comment

Feliz Dia de Reyes!

OK, today is epiphany, or Dia de reyes, as we call it in my country. In my country we celebrate it with gifts, so today I am going to play Melchior with you all and be the one bearing gifts. Hopefully the gifts I bring, all operatic, will make you happy.

  • Gift 1, as the number suggests is from the land of firsts and creation. No, you do not have to figure out what is it to receive it, but you do need to know that you have to open all 4 doors before you know what it is: here are door 1, door 2, door 3 and door 4
  • Gift 2 has both the scent of “rosa vera”; as they would sing in Italy back in the 40’s; but also all the joy of a sweet 16 party. But don’t be fooled, if you piss this princess off, she will have your head chopped off and dance on your grave until she falls dead herself. Just like in the previous gift, you have to walk through 4 doors, but are you brave enough?: Door 1, door 2, door 3, door 4.
  • Gift 3 is of Wagnerian proportions. You will find Witches, Gods, Sea Captains and even Singers. But it is not until you unite them in one voice that you will know what is it.
  • Gift 4 is also perfumed but beware, this perfume is poisonous. In order to get this gift you will need to take a Crusade and ask advise from a Prophet, but don’t trust him too much or you might end up Chasing Goats. No matter what, you will have as much fun as the Devil, but not before you mixt it all up in the same cup.
  • Gift 5 comes from the land where never snows on Christmas day. As a matter of fact, it gets hot as pasta sauce on that day. And before you can enjoy this feast of all Italian dishes, you have to mix the sauce, the pasta, the meat and the olive oil for it to taste good.
  • Gift 6 also comes from the land where it never snows on Christmas day. This time they have cooked a feast worthy of Oktoberfest. This invitation-only Family feast might cause you some headaches because Mom and Dad’s marriage has been on the rocks for decades. To compound the problem the bank is calling in the mortgage and one of the daughters is having issues with authority. Don’t be surprised if the whole feast goes up in flames. The only problem with this feast is that you cannot enjoy the dishes separately, you have to face the entire family and get them to work together. You think you have what it takes?
  • Gift 7 is very special, this gift is only for members of a very exclusive club. But don’t worry about it, To belong to this club you will not be assessed fees. As a matter of fact,  just  by getting it, you have automatically been inducted to The Club.

Lise Lindstrom as Turandot and Frank Porretta as Calaf,‭ ‬in FGO’s‭ ‬Turandot. (Photo by Gaston de Cardenas)

Now for some technical matters: Just like in Turandot

Gli enigmi sonno tre, la morte una

The difference is that in this case, gli enigmi sonno quatro, but just like in Turandot, if you do not answer ALL the riddles, you do not get to play.  So to be able to play with your gift, you must download every single “riddle” from the bullet (or bullets) that you chose. Otherwise the gift is not going to work.

The good part about these enigmas is that they are all solved with a magic wand. Yes, you read right, you do not have to provide answers to any of the enigmas, just download the riddles you want to solve  and use THIS MAGIC WAND to solve them. Now, you need to know what platform you stand on when you solve them, because the wand and your platform need to match or else you are S-O-L.

Well,these are your gifts and I hope you like them. if for some reason you can not figure out all I am saying, send me an email and I’ll try to help you.

Have a safe day,

January 6, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Adieu Cuenod

It is with great sadness that today we bid farewell to the greatest tenor nobody knew in my generation. For many the name Hugues Cuenod is but a footnote. A short search on Google would tell you that he is the tenor who sang Emperor Altotum in the met’s DVD of Turandor that preserves Eva Marton , Placido Domingo, Leona Mitchell and Paul Plishka’s assumptions of Turandot, Calaf, Liu and Timur respectively.

If that is all you know about this artist, there is still so much more that needs to be known…

Hugues Cuenod was born  in Switzerland on June 16th 1902. That would make him 108 at the time of his death and not content with living to that ripe old age, he was an artist who never stop growing performing. Not long ago I was reading about some guy who at 98 was declaring himself the oldest tenor still performing. Cuenod could have easily challenged the gentleman’s assertion. His last public appearance was as Triquet in  Onegin at 92 and I would not be surprised if he did a private performance here and there pass that and well into his 100’s. So solid was his technique that he could perform at that age with a solid command of style and voice.

Among maestro Cuenod’s many accomplishments, he was the oldest tenor to debut at the Metropolitan Opera when at over 80 he was cast in that fateful Turandot. He was also a stalwart at Glyndebourne, where he sang starting in 1954 and appears in several of his recordings. After hearing several of his landmark recordings of early music Stravinsky asked him to sing a role in his new opera  that would debut at La Fenice. This opera was of course Rake’s Progress and the role was that of Selem the auctioneer. A recording of one of the performances testifies to the splendid vocalism that characterized Cuenod through his career.

Cuenod sand everything from Back, Elizabethan songs and Stranvinsky. He was said to be a fantastic sight reader and a musician of the first order.  His simplicity of delivery, sweet voice and unaffected singing was a model for the Early Music revival that was in its early stages in the 50’s; so if you are an early music specialist, you owe Maestro Cuenod a debt of gratitude.His recordings of Elizabethan songs and of French melodies should still be required listening not only to those who aspire to sing early music, but to those who dream of success in the concert stage as well.

Hugues Cuenod did not rest with being some old guy who sang in the 50’s and left some recordings;  he a trailblazer throughout his life. Not only did he participate and help opening the doors in the early music movement, in his old age he became a gay icon as well, when at the age of 104 he married his long time partner in a civil ceremony when the laws in Switzerland gave gay couples a measure of equality.

For all of these reasons and for many more that escape any attempt to memorialize this amazing artist he will be remembered. Maestro Cuenod will live in the hearts and minds of those who love singing from the heart.

Rather than ending it there, let’s hope that some examples will lead some of my readers to explore more of this amazing artist. For starters, an search reveals 4 pages of recordings of this artist; one of them the famous Glyndebourne Figaro where he sings Basilio partnered by none other than Sesto Bruscantini, Sena Jurinac, Rise Stevens and Graziella Sciutti.

What better way to pay homage to a great artist than to play his recordings and make sure that they are heard by the new generation? let’s do just that.

First, from my own personal collection here are a couple of items. First selections from a recording of Debussy songs he made at age 70. From the Cinq Poèmes de Baudelaire we will hear Le Balcon, Recueilllement and then the ever popular Nuits D’etoiles.

(Titles link to translations of the text. To follow the score click here for Nuit D’etoiles and here for Baudelaire)

Next we will get several other selections from other recordings starting with Anna Magdalena Bach’s Bist du bei mir (Translation / Score) with Albert Fuller in the harpsichord  and John Dowland’s Come again, sweet love (Text / Score) with Joel Cohen in the lute:

And just in case you are thinking that Maestro Cuenod was only good for the early stuff, here he is in some Lied from the height of the romantic period with Schubetr’s Der Wanderer an den Mond (Translation / Score) and Schuman’s Du bist wie eine Blume (Translation / Score page 46).

And last, one of my favorite songs, Gabriel Faure’s Automne… (Translation / Score page 10)

YouTube, the great equalizer it is, also proves fertile ground for anyone who wants to explore Hugues Cuenod’s artistry. Here are some examples that I hope will wet your appetite:

First his recording of Cypriano de Rore’s “Vergine Pura.”

And here we havehim in a scene from Wozzek, sung in Italian with Tito Gobbi in the title role:

And here is in a magnificent recording of Jour et Nuit from Offenbach’s Les contes de Hoffmann

For those who can not get enough, here is a small file that we owe to the generosity of legendary collector Mike Richter with several LPs of Hugues Cuenod singing through the years. In the file you will get the following LP’s, most with texts included:

  • Italian Songs of the 16th and 17th Centuries – Hermann Leeb (lute)
  • Spanish Songs of the 16th Century – Hermann Leeb (lute)
  • Songs from Shakespeare Plays – Albert Fuller (hps)
  • Bach: Anna Magdalena Buch – Albert Fuller (hps)
  • Songs from La Fontaine – Albert Fuller (hps)
  • Fauré: Cinq Melodies de Venise
  • Faure: Le bonne chanson

What else is there to say but Merci, merci beaucoup Maestro Cuenod…

December 7, 2010 Posted by | In memoriam | 2 Comments

A Farewell to Shirley Verrett

The world of opera, the fans and the pros find ourselves grieving yet again. A merely 4 weeks after we learned of Joan Sutherland’s passing we now find ourselves having to eulogize Shirley Verrett.

Shirley Verrett was one of those enigmatic singers whose voice defied labels, and because of that, she earned the one that I would think pleased her the most: not Diva, or Goddess, but simply SINGER. Sometimes, the easiest labels are the hardest to earn…

Shirley Verrett was born in New Orleans and by the age of 33 she had already conquered stages on both sides of the Atlantic, a feat that she would continue doing for the nest 3 decades in an ever expanding list of roles that just like her, defied expectations and surprised everyone.Triumph she did, and on she went trailing her own path and taking no prisoners in her way.

Shirley Verrett had a voice of unique quality, and that voice allowed her to to triumph is roles that seemed polar opposites. After starting singing roles more associated with the mezzo-soprano and contralto voice, she gradually took on roles that kept getting higher and higher; until there was no mistaking it, Sopranos beware, there was a new player in town. The rules were not the same for a long time, to the enjoyment of the audience and the despair of sopranos the world over.

This switch still inflames passions on both sides of the opera divide, mainly because we like our singers, specially our female ones to fit neatly into the niches that we believe there are: Soprano, Mezzo & Contralto.  Eventually Verrett sang all of them, in some she was just magnificent and in some, well, she ruled.

Long ago, I came to realize that the French had it easier and better when they apply a very esoteric label to singers of the Verrettt mold: Falcon. The label, born out of the career of Marie Cornélie Falcon is applied in France to female singers who ride the divide of the Soprano-mezzo line. Their voices sit right in between, with a definite soprano coloration, but sometimes the extreme high notes are not there, or not for long.

So, just like the French, I made peace with the fact that Verret’s voice defied labels and I applied one myself. After all, if the French use it, why not me? For me, Verret was not merely a mezzo or a soprano, she was a Falcon; and like a falcon she soared to heights mezzos could only dream of; and she visited depths many sopranos would give a right arm to visit. In all of that, she walked, jumped and danced on a tight rope with no safety netting and no balancing stick. Proving that she had the spirit and the balls to do it, always with a smile on her face. If we needed proof, well, how about the high D she nailed at the end of Act I of Norma in Boston.

Verrett, unlike many sopranos who claim to be able to but ultimately fail, was able to sing just about everything. She sang a very sexy Carmen, a hair rising Azucena (“The best I saw” was how my friend Ronizetti described her), a dignified Leonora in La favorita and Fidelio. In time she was an equally successful Tosca, a touching Desdemona, Alceste, Cassandra and Didon (the last 2 sung on the same night at the Met). But it was both her a sinister Lady Macbeth, and the scorned Eboli the roles that will forever define her. In these 2 roles, so seemingly different that she showed what a solid belcantista she was.

As the years passed by she continued to defy preconceived notions and as if thinking she had something to prove she continued to alternate polar opposite roles, like Amneris and Aida; and to  tackle ones that people would not associate with her voice or temperament, but even in those she proved them wrong; like when she sand Desdemona, a role not associated with women of a certain “temperament” but she sang it just as beautifully as anyone else.

Her solid technique allowed her to sing roles from Gluck, through Rossini, to Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, Puccini, she even tackled Broadway, in a production of Carousel! In concert, we even got to sample several might-have-beens when she tackled Dich teure Halle and the Liebestod, making us wish she had sung at least Venus and Isolde; one because she could and the other because she WAS such a beautiful woman, how could a tenor wish to leave her presence?

The wonderful thing about Shirley Verret is hat she was active when artists were still receiving recordings contracts and when fan were willing to risk anything to capture artists in performances; and houses willing to turn a blind eye without calling the copyright police. Thanks to that we have a treasure trove of both commercial and live recordings in which to bask in her artistry and her generosity as a performer.

Any savvy internet surfer should not have problems finding performances both to download and to purchase with this irreplaceable artist. Like a 1991 Trovatore with her as Azucena and Kabaivanska as Leonora.  Or a 1972 Verdi Requiem with her singing the mezzo part and Martina Arroyo singing the soprano part. Or a 1984 Don Carlo that has her Eboli competing for the love of the Carlos of Giulianno Cianella against the Elizabetta of Montserrat Caballe. (Hear ye, hear ye! Like Turandot’s riddles, this one 3 parts it also has; and just like Turandot’s, you will not win if you do not answer all 3). Even the generous people at Opera Depot are offering a free download of her as Lady Macbeth

As her career drew to a close and the accolades and farewells rained on, she turned her thoughts on those early years and how hard it was for her back then. A flame to pass on the knowledge grew into a full fledged and all consuming fire.  In 1995, at the National Opera Association Gala Banquet and Concert honoring Mattiwilda Dobbs and Camilla Williams among others, Verrett had said: “I’m always happy when I can speak to young people because I remember those who were kind to me that didn’t need to be. The first reason I came tonight was for the honorees because I needed to say this. The second reason I came was for you, the youth. These great people here were the trailblazers for me. I hope in my own way I did something to help your generation… ” This passion materialized in 1996 when she joined the faculty of the University of Michigan School of Music as a Professor of Voice.

I will leave the last words to a dear friend, we’ll call her IndyMary out of respect to her privacy. IndyMary was one of those people who drank from Shirley Verrett’s fountain of knowledge  and she learned the news shortly before I send her a quick email. I asked IndyMary if she would like to write some words about Verrett to help me eulogize her and in the middle of the hustle and bustle that her days are, she left it all on the paper and I want to share it with you, dear readers and with her, even if in spirit. Take it over IndyMary:

She was so generous to her students, often to the extent that she would show up to staging and music rehearsals for the opera so she could give you notes. Incredible. She was so focused on the health of singers and great technique and was so committed to learning how to communicate that in her teaching. I loved her energy and valued her advice as a seasoned performer and communicator.

She started teaching in the fall of 1996 and I started at Michigan that Fall as one of her first students. I treasure the time I had with her and the gems of instruction and advice I keep with me and use today. A Diva of supreme talent, committed teacher, warm-hearted, spit-fire of a woman whom I will miss.

We should be so lucky to be remembered this way. And so with that, there is only one thing that is left to say:

Thank you Shirley Verret. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

November 6, 2010 Posted by | In memoriam | 3 Comments

Joan Sutherland: Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali


Portrait by June Mendoza


On Mondays I wake up late, really late. What does that have to do with Joan Sutherland? The fact that about a minute after I get out of bed I hear my best friend’s ring tone; his greeting? You couldn’t have called me? When I asked him what the hell was he talking about, that I had just woken up and was confused he dropped  the bomb on me:

Joan Sutherland Died!

I know talking about Sutherland is an exercise in futility. Gallons of ink have been spilled just on superlatives, many more gallons have been spilled telling her story: The poor secretary who wanted to be a singer. She thought he was going to be a Wagnerian singer but her husband knew better. Then one night she is given Lucia di Lammermoor at Covent Garden and the world was never the same. The same amount of ink has been spilled in criticizing her: the droopy diction, the extreme dependence on her husband, to the point of demanding him to conduct all her performances, the demands for expensive productions of operas that nobody cared about, the championing of 2nd rate singers just so she would be always the star, the alleged xenophobia and racism, the strained relationship with Australian Opera and many more. No doubt, Joan Sutherland provoked reactions anywhere she went.

But the voice, oh the voice…. That torrent of gold that emanated from her throat graced the music from composers as varied as Haydn (Euridice in the first modern performances of his Orfeo {wich of course she wasn’t, that would be Callas in 1951 and thanks to parterre reader Cocky Kurwenal for setting me straight on that one. I am such a dumbass sometimes}) to Mozart ( the first soprano with a British passport to sing Contessa Almaviva and Glyndebourne and her Donna Anna for Giulini remains a classic), Wagner (Brangane, Rheinmaiden and the Forrest Bird in Solti’s Ring) and Britten (Lady Penelope in Gloriana).  But it was her close association with bel canto that gained her the name of La Stupenda and will forever influence singers of future generations. Her handling of some of the most difficult passage work like she was doing simple math continues to astonish.

But now all that is gone. With Joan Sutherland’s death, the circle of greats that are associated to a golden age long ago passed continues to shrink. Her death, and the countless of public and private memorials it will provoke, will remind us how truly starved we are for singers like her. In this age of generic performances, we needed her the most and now she is gone.

For those of you who have never heard of her (the 3 of you in the whole world) Opera Depot has made available her breakthrough performance of Lucia free of charge. Just enter your email address and you will be taken to the download page. This is a limited offering, so get it while it is still available.  Elsewhere in the web there is plenty of available stuff so you can sample her art; Like a 1966 Atlanta recital or a recital of Bellini, Verdi and Donizetti works or a 1979 concert she sang with Pavarotti (2 parts!) .

Even YouTube is fertile ground for those who wish to either get to know her or just do their own private memorial.



What else is left to say but Thank you? Thank you Joan for all those wonderful nights you gave us. Thank you for all those wonderful recordings you gave us.

Just thank you…

October 11, 2010 Posted by | In memoriam | 1 Comment