New productions, Opera history

A Hologram for the Queen… of Opera

We’ve talked before about the artificially-enhanced opera experience of watching a live Met broadcast. Now the technology is going one step further and bringing opera royalty back from the dead. Sort of.

Maybe you’ve heard the news: the great Maria Callas is touring again. Although this time she’s a mere ghost of her former self—literally.

Yes, the wizards at Base Entertainment—the same company that brought you “Criss Angel, MindFreak” and “Magic Mike Live from Vegas”—has resurrected the voice of arguably the greatest soprano in opera history, some 40+ years after her earthly departure. And she might be coming to a city near you, complete with a live (yes, actually live) orchestra.

The critics who refuse to suffer the overly-produced Met broadcasts should have a field day with this one. But not so fast. While campy and eerily disturbing, it might also be the sort of spectacle that captivates your attention, despite your best intentions to dismiss it.  Not unlike watching an illusionist on stage. You know it’s not real, but yet you can’t look away.

At times, it seems to work beautifully and you’re completely unaware that the apparition on stage is a computer-generated projection. At other instants, there seems to be a small glitch, a ghost in the machine (pardon the pun), as if she’s a puppet and the puppet master is a bit drunk and slightly off his game. There are moments when you hear her voice singing full-out, but her mouth is nearly closed. Well, it’s all an illusion anyway, so if you’re not willing to suspend disbelief, then better not to participate at all.

Ironically (or not), the best part is when the designers of this spectacle decide to make the best of the fun toys at their disposal and use the technology to full effect. Like when Callas throws a deck of playing cards up in the air and they freeze in space momentarily. Then the diva stares at them while they slowly flutter down as the orchestra transitions to the next aria. If you’re going down the path of a Las Vegas magic act, might as well commit to it.

But how does this all happen? How do we get this specter of the dearly departed Maria Callas performing right before our eyes? Was she considerate enough to record this concert in anticipation of the technology that had not yet been invented at the time of her career?

Well, no, of course not. The holographic body of Maria Callas is on loan from a present-day model/actress who spent weeks studying the personality of Ms. Callas, as well as her body language, gestures, and famous report with the audience. The 3-D facial features (and sometimes out-of-sync mouth movements) were created from a computer composite from a library of photographs.

The voice was even more difficult to replicate. According to Marty Tudor, Executive Producer and CEO of BASE Hologram Productions:

“Keep in mind that back when Callas was recorded, she was not in a separate room from the orchestra. Now, for the first time, the technology exists for the vocals from original recordings to be separated from both the orchestra and other singers. As an aside, when we were separating Callas’ voice from the orchestra there were times it was difficult to decipher her from the instruments due to her ‘perfect pitch.’”

This is all very interesting, but if you’re considering attending the concert, probably better to not dwell on the mechanics. Have a drink or two before the show and let the illusion captivate you… just like the real Maria surely would have 40 years ago. It’s theater, after all, and we want an escape. And what better escape than watching someone escape death while entertaining audiences that weren’t even alive the last time she performed?

Brava, Maria! Encore, encore! (And this particular encore could go on for quite a while…)

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Modern operas, Opera history

Changing the Ending to Carmen

Re-imagining the most popular works and placing them in a new setting has produced some creative revivals of opera classics in recent years.

There are certain operas that lend themselves particularly well to this type of practice because their themes are so universal. Romeo et Juliet (star-crossed love), Rigoletto (revenge), and Don Giovanni (unrepentant lust), just to name a few.

But how far can we go with this?

It’s one thing to create a modern set and contemporary costumes—Rigoletto in Las Vegas or Don Giovanni in a film noir set. This adds flavor, and makes the pieces and their themes feel more relatable.

Photo by Cory Weaver for Lyric Opera of Kansas City

However, is it also acceptable to alter to the plot and the musical arrangement? Should the story, the score, and the essential emotions of the original artists be significantly altered? If so, then what do we call this edited work… is it a “version” of the original, or a whole new work of art?

Case in point, in 2017 the Florence (Italy) opera house produced a new “version” of Carmen, where the title character does not die, but rather murders her abuser. The new feminist movement in the wake of #MeToo replaces Old World female subjugation.

“As far as we know, it is the first time that the ending to Carmen has been changed,” the opera house’s Paolo Klun told The Telegraph.

“We think it’s important that the theatre should not be a conservative place of musical culture, it should not be a museum. It’s a place where debate can be initiated. Carmen was written 150 years ago in a very different cultural context. Times change.”

Times change, indeed. And in any case, it’s not uncommon for certain operas to have several different “versions” that have been created over the years to accommodate a given companies resources, time constraints, venue limitations, and other variables. But that’s not exactly the same thing as overhauling the entire storyline, including changes to the score…

Opera Australia’s ‘Carmen’ by C Branco Gaica

Leo Muscato, the opera’s director, said he was initially resistant to the idea of changing the ending. “The death of Carmen is the engine that drives the opera, why reverse the situation?”

“Then I understood that what Chiarot (superintendent, Opera di Firenze) was calling for was reasonable. The theme of death in the opera has a strong masculine element – the woman must sacrifice herself in order to save her freedom. It is a point of view that today makes no sense.”

Well, OK, but if that’s the case, perhaps we should review—and change—our entire body of historical works of literature, music, painting, sculpture, theater, etc. Perhaps our modern-day environmentalists would prefer that Captain Ahab merely photograph, instead of hunt, Moby Dick. (Not as compelling, is it?) Maybe even Florence’s own statue of David by Michelangelo should be covered up in the name of modesty. Where would we draw the line?

This is an interesting debate, and it’s not going away any time soon. There is a lot of pressure to be politically correct, even in the arts where there should be more freedom from this type of influence. But alas, here we are, one of the most beloved pieces in opera history fundamentally altered to conform to modern sensibilities. So now what? Perhaps Cio-Cio San will be the next beneficiary of this new trend; maybe she’ll even turn her sword on Pinkerton in an upcoming production of Madama Butterfly—many in the audience would love to see that, no doubt!

What are your thoughts on the debate? Please leave your comments below.

Here’s the original article in The Telegraph:

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books about opera
Opera history, Opera in daily life

Books to Inspire Your Season of Opera

Looking to add an interesting new book to your summer reading list?  If you’re curious about opera, or need something to hold you over until the season starts back up again, we’ve collected six opera-inspired reads for every type of opera lover.

Whether you’re new to the art form or a seasoned pro, check out these six books below that are sure to inspire your upcoming season of opera:

The Queen of the Night

Alexander Chee’s bestselling novel is perfect for the fiction lover who may also be new to opera. The story follows a legendary soprano who finally gets the chance to sing an original role – but at a price she’s not sure she’s willing to pay. Much like an opera, The Queen of the Night is full of drama, complete with death, deception, betrayal and a web of romance.

Opera 101: A Complete Guide To Learning And Loving Opera

Great for history buffs, or readers looking for an everything-you-need-to-know guide to opera, Opera 101 covers it all and is an easy read. Fred Plotkin leads you through the history of opera, goes over operatic concepts and voice types, recommendations, and insight into how to best enjoy opera.

A Night at the Opera

For a more in-depth look into the world of opera, check out Denis Forman’s informative insider’s guide. Forman walks readers through 83 of the most popular operas recorded, dissecting each of their plots, characters and histories in detail. Perhaps one of the most interesting parts of the book, Forman includes unabashed critiques and praises of each piece, providing readers with great debate material and potential trivia answers for years to come.

Bel Canto

Another nonfiction opera-inspired pick, Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto (now a major motion picture) tells the thrilling story of an elegant evening gone wrong in South America. What begins as a lavish birthday party for a government official, featuring an exclusive concert with an acclaimed opera singer, turns into a hostile and dangerous situation.

Mozart’s Women: His Family, His Friends, His Music

Mozart’s Women offers readers a unique perspective on the brilliant composer, and how his relationships with women influenced and inspired his work. For those looking to learn more about the genius behind some of opera’s most famous works, and his life through the lens of the women surrounding him, Jane Glover has covered it all in this biographical book.

A History of Opera

Referred to as one of the best books on the subject by many, A History of Opera explores how—and why—opera has continued to transfix audiences for centuries. Carolyn Abbate examines opera’s societal role, its timeless narratives, and the enduring works that despite their age, stand the test of time.

Did we miss any? Let us know in the comments below! 

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A Brief History of Opera
Featured, Opera history

A Brief History of Opera

Opera was not an art form that grew organically from a long tradition. Rather, it was deliberately invented by a group of scholars, who named among its members none other than Vincenzo Galileo, the father of the famous astronomer.

The group was formed in the city of Florence during the 1590s, and they were known as the Camerata. They sought to revive the power of Greek drama, incorporating musical features, just as the Greeks did, to enhance the emotion of the story. These experiments led to the development of the stile recitativo, which became a precursor of opera lirica, the opera that we know today.

Around the same time in the same city was another group called Accademia della Crusca. Their main objective was to define and preserve the vulgar Florentine tongue as a model for a standardized Italian language. Within this larger goal was a stated objective to create a language that sounded as beautiful as possible; a language that lent itself to music, even when spoken in daily conversation.

All the pieces were in place for opera to be conceived. It wasn’t long after that when it was officially born.

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